There’s a bittersweet quality to the history of animation once you reach the 2000s. There was a proliferation of companies owned or partnered with major studios, offering more feature-length cartoon content than mainstream cinema had ever seen. While the notion that animation is “just” for kids persists to this day, films like Shrek helped to weaken that stigma. But the success of Shrek and related titles encouraged a cynical, self-aware, and celebrity-led sense of humor that’s become persistent in American animation. And there was a near-total displacement of any form of animation other than CGI by the decade’s end – another trend that has yet to subside.
Shrek’s DreamWorks Animation may have come into its own during the 2000s, but the decade belonged to Pixar. The films they released in those years remain among the most beloved animated pictures ever made and cemented the studio’s stellar reputation with audiences and critics. Such was Pixar’s success that they displaced Disney as the big game in town for animation. And so impactful were their films that work from other studios, even the majors, can end up overlooked in public recollections of the decade.
That’s where we come in. Here are ten of the best animated films of the 2000s not produced by Pixar:
The Princess and the Frog (2009)
Whether they were traditional or digital, most (not all) of the Disney cartoons of the 2000s couldn’t muster more than a lukewarm reception, and sometimes bombed out on a massive scale. But there was a sense by the time The Princess and the Frog premiered that the ship was starting to right. Its immediate predecessors had done better at the box office, Disney legends John Musker and Ron Clements were back in the director’s chair, and Frog represented a return to 2D animation after the Michael Eisner regime had vowed to retire the form. Controversy dogged initial development, but the finished film is a beautiful last bow for the style of Disney film begun by Musker and Clements’ The Little Mermaid twenty years before. The Jazz Age New Orleans setting only does so much to shake up a thoroughly traditional tale, but there’s nothing wrong with a little old-fashioned romance and magic. It did well with critics and moviegoers too – unfortunately, not well enough to make Disney’s promise to revive 2D animation stick, or to keep future fairy tale films from being saddled with obnoxious generic titles on the spurious logic that they’d otherwise be taken as “fairy tale[s] for girls” (because lord knows those never make money). Tangled and Frozen get more attention, but for me, Frog is the strongest of Disney’s princess stories from the 21st century.
Ice Age (2002)
This article could almost be called “Best Animated Films of the 2000s that aren’t CGI.” I have a hostility toward the form that time, and CG’s continued stranglehold over the American cartoon feature market. It doesn’t help that the technology was still maturing in the 2000s; the strain against technical limits is evident in many of the visuals from the decade. Ice Age holds up fairly well in that regard. The characters are just stylized enough to let them move and emote appealingly. The heavy emphasis on action-comedy gives the film a nice kinetic energy. It followed Shrek’s lead in casting celebrity voices and adopting a sometimes sneering wit, but it’s not nearly as bitter a movie. The emotional side of the story, particularly the past heartbreak of Ray Romano’s Manny and how caring for a human child bonds him with the other two leads, is surprisingly strong, and a much more earnest effort than other early CG films. And who can resist Scrat? Ice Age may have some of the dumbest sequels in recent animated history, but the original hasn’t lost its charm.
Chicken Run (2000)
Chicken Run didn’t exactly represent a breakthrough for Aardman Animations; their character Morph was a popular presence on UK TV, and Wallace and Gromit won the studio Oscars in the 90s. But Chicken Run was the studio’s first feature film. Peter Lord and Nick Park cooked up a delightful parody-tribute to The Great Escape, never too dark, childish, or saccharine. The grounding in that sort of classic escape story provides an appeal to older viewers without recourse to crass or trendy humor. A pillar of the film – a “Yank meets Brits” dynamic – is anything but current, even in 2000, but it’s well played. And the whole thing is briskly paced and tidily wrapped up in just 84 minutes. If Chicken Run isn’t as singularly eccentric a work as the Wallace and Gromit shorts, it’s an excellent showcase for Aardman’s distinctive approach to stop motion animation.
Waltz with Bashir (2008)
When Waltz with Bashir was first released, it was advertised as the first fully animated feature-length documentary. It would more accurately be described as a docudrama, or the filmic equivalent of a nonfiction novel. The making of the film involved interviews and recorded “talking heads” in the traditional documentary manner, but these were only the starting point for four years of work on digital cutout animation. Director Ari Folman used his own struggles with memories of his military service during the Lebanon War as the subject matter, and he wanted to “bring out the horrors of war through nightmares and hallucinations.” From the opening dream sequence with 26 dogs to a haunting collection of live footage from the aftermath of the Sabra and Shatila massacre, the imagery of Waltz with Bashir is certainly horrific. It’s a far cry from the popular image of animation as easy entertainment, but it’s rare to see a filmmaker explore personal and political demons outside of fiction with this level of surreal artistry.
Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)
When asked if there were any films that excited him in 2010, John Landis named Fantastic Mr. Fox. “You know why I liked it?” he said. “Because it was true to the source – to Roald Dahl – but it was also very much a Wes Anderson movie.” If you sit down and compare the two, Anderson’s sensibility dominates the film more than that blurb indicates. His visual signatures are everywhere, the levels of deadpan are off the charts, and most of the screenplay is original material. But instead of trying to stretch Dahl’s children’s book to feature-length with padding, Anderson and writer Noah Baumbach built a first and third act, between which slides the book’s plot in a form tailored to what they came up with. There’s a creative tension in that marriage, but seeing what a book can inspire a talent like Anderson’s to create does indeed make for an exciting viewing experience. Another excitement for animation buffs is watching the (mostly) successful attempt to get Anderson’s characteristic underplaying across in a medium that often struggles with that sort of subtlety.
It’s been insinuated that Christopher Nolan appropriated elements from Paprika when he made Inception. Nolan hasn’t named Paprika as an influence, and the charge seems unfair. The idea of going inside a dream wasn’t invented by either film, and they have different aesthetics and priorities. Paprika, based on a novel by Yasutaka Tsutsui and directed by the late Satoshi Kon, is a wild ride of the movie. It’s more colorful than Inception, more surreal, more emotional, more chaotic in structure – in short, it’s more like an actual dream. And it’s more concerned with the meaning of dreams to the dreamers who make up the ensemble cast. The plot concerns a terrorist abusing a new technology, but the ultimate payoff concerns moving revelations about the principal characters. The animation is the rival of anything by Studio Ghibli, and the parade music running throughout the film will never leave your head. Paprika was a long-cherished project for Kon, and sadly proved to be his final feature film before his death in 2010. The passion for the film is evident in every frame.
The Secret of Kells (2009)
Animation in Ireland has come a long way. After Sullivan Bluth Studios collapsed in the 90s, animators who might have ended up workers there set up their own production companies, and among them was the team of Tomm Moore, Nora Twomey, and Paul Young. They began developing a film based around Ireland’s famous Book of Kells while still in college in 1999; several years and a lot of commercial work later, their young studio Cartoon Saloon had the funding to make it happen. Moore has spoken about wanting to pursue a “folk art style,” a design scheme that would celebrate uniquely Irish art in animation the way other films have celebrated traditional Japanese or Persian art. The Secret of Kells excels in that, but in doing so, it also celebrates so much of what makes 2D animation wonderful: line, graphic shape, and the play of color and texture over a flat surface. It also tells a moving family story with allusions to Irish history and folklore, the first of a trilogy of such films from Moore.
Spirited Away (2001)
Watching Hayao Miyazaki’s work can be comparable to watching Stanley Kubrick’s: both men are obvious masters of their craft, their films are impeccably produced, their depth and range of thought is undeniable, but there’s so much technical perfection at hand that the movies can feel clinical, easy to admire but not always emotionally or psychologically accessible. But Spirited Away is engaging on all levels. The music and sound design are lovely. The design and styling are beautiful to look at, the animation stunningly expressive and organic. It’s funny, terrifying, sweet, and thought-provoking in turns. Dodging a trap this type of story can often fall into, the main characters don’t become lost in the fantastic elements surrounding them. Most of all, Spirited Away is a film so rich in ideas, details, and nuances of performance and expression, that you can watch it again and again, always finding something new. Miyazaki has said that Chihiro doesn’t remember her adventures at the end of the film, but it’s a rare viewer who could forget them.
Lilo & Stitch (2002)
The critical drubbing that Disney’s cartoons took in the early 2000s has been reassessed in recent years, but the best Disney cartoon of that period remains the one that picked up praise at the time: Lilo & Stitch. Visually, it represented an appealing change of pace: a more rounded character design based on the style of co-director/writer Chris Sanders paired with delicate watercolor backgrounds. But what makes it work are the two lead characters. Stitch, voiced by Sanders himself, is a wonderfully nasty fuzzball of destruction until he encounters Lilo, a troubled girl with a very specific set of quirks and tastes. Her struggles to tame Stitch provide plenty of laughs, and plenty of pathos when the film takes a somber turn. Lilo’s relationship with her older sister is one of Disney’s most convincing, and a supporting cast of aliens, agents, and surfers provides animated and vocal color. It doesn’t surprise me at all that this film spawned sequels, a series, and an anime; they might be hit or miss, but the original film is one of Disney’s finest from any decade.
This picture would top a list of best animated films of the 2000s even if Pixar were included. In every sense, Coraline is a triumph. The design, heavily influenced by illustrator Tadahiro Uesugi, is enchanting, and craftsmanship is evident in every character, set, and miniature prop. The score by Bruno Coulais perfectly captures the offbeat personality of the lead character. The voice cast, particularly Dakota Fanning as Coraline and Keith David as the Cat, are brilliant. Neil Gaiman’s original novella is a wickedly fun source material. Director Henry Selick was at the top of his game on the film, and the sensibility of author and director gel more organically here than in Fantastic Mr. Fox. Gaiman’s book as a chilling quality to its language, but it would be difficult to translate literally onto film. Selick’s screenplay and direction expand the story just enough to make the horror and the humor really land on screen, presenting an escalating nightmare that young Coraline Jones must triumph over. It’s production company Laika’s best film to date, and one of the greatest stop motion films ever made.
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