When it comes to animated films these days, it seems to be all or nothing. On the one hand, you have giant, crowd-pleasing blockbusters churned out by huge studios like Disney/Pixar and DreamWorks Animation; on the other, you have tiny indie efforts developed by animators toiling in obscurity somewhere overseas. There's just no middle ground.
In a way, that push and pull between art and commerce is what helps make animation such a vital art form. It also makes trying to rank animated movies a giant pain in the ass, because it's like comparing apples to sombreros; not only are many animated films wildly different in form and intent than others, half the time they literally aren't speaking the same language.
But that's why we get paid the big bucks. If you've been wondering which family-friendly blockbusters are actually good or which foreign imports are worth tracking down down at your local art house, just take a look at out Top Ten Animated Films of 2012.
Usually we try to avoid heaping any praise on Adam Sandler movies, because, let's face it, the guy has really been churning out one stinkburger after another in recent years. But with "Hotel Transylvania," Sandler and company have traded scatalogical jokes and crude double entendres for more G-rated animated fun. In the process, "Hotel Transylvania" has also become one of the biggest box office hits of the year, meaning it will almost certainly get a sequel. See what happens when you make a good movie, Adam?
The latest import from Japan's famous Studio Ghibli, "From Up on Poppy Hill" tells the tale of two teenagers in 1960's Yokohama whose budding relationship is thrown a curveball when it turns out they may or may not be siblings. The film itself is also a curveball in the budding career of director Gorō Miyazaki; derided for his first effort, 2006's "Tales from Earthsea," the son of animation legend Hayao Miyzaki rebounded to win Japan's Academy Award for Animation of the year for "From Up on Poppy Hill." It's just now hitting American theaters, so be sure to check local listings because this one likely won't stick around too long.
It took Tim Burton nearly three decades to finally fully realize his vision for "Frankenweenie," which he first made into a short film for Disney back in 1984. So, was it worth the wait? Combining Burton's usual mix of weirdness and pathos, "Frankenweenie" — which tells the story of a kid who loves his dog so much he brings it back from the dead — uses stop motion animation to lovingly create the ultimate tribute to both classic horror films and childhood affection. And since those two elements are pretty much what inform every single Burton film ever made, we have to say that, yeah, this one was more than worth the wait.
Based on his own popular comic book series, co-director Joann Sfar has created in "The Rabbi's Cat" a film that is interesting both visually and intellectually; the story of a cat in the 1920's who learns to speak and wishes to convert to Judaism is, shall we say, a bit more challenging than "Madagascar 3." And critics have taken notice, as "The Rabbi's Cat" has earned an Annie Award nomination for Best Animated Feature, as well as a César for Best Animated Film.
For some reason, "Rise of the Guardians" hasn't quite caught the imagination of the public, but it's not for a lack of effort. After all, the story — about a group of fairy tale figures like Santa and the Easter Bunny who band together "Avengers"-style to fight the Boogeyman — would seem to be the perfect mix of holiday cheer and crowd-pleasing action. And it is, which is no surprise considering it's produced by Guillermo del Toro, who knows a thing or two about taking fantastic concepts and turning them into top notch films. It's not too late to give "Rise of the Guardians" a try, so don't let the marketing fool you: This one is better than it looks.
Despite boasting a talented cast of voice actors (Anna Kendrick, Casey Affleck, John Goodman, Kodi Smit-McPhee) and a sterling animation pedigree (it was made by the team behind the acclaimed 2009 hit "Coraline"), the stop motion film "ParaNorman" was a little bit lost at the box office this year. Which is too bad, because its mix of creepiness, humor and heart in telling a story about a kid who can speak to the dead and must use that questionable gift to save his home town is sure to appeal to anyone who enjoyed "Coraline" — or anyone who enjoys good movies, period.
What happens when you combine pirates with the creative talents of the folks at Aardman Animation, who have won a boatload of Oscars for their work on the "Wallace & Gromit" series? You get the most charming and downright fun animated film of the year, "The Pirates! Band of Misfits." Using their patented stop motion techniques, Aardman brings to life fully realized versions of the popular characters from author Gideon Defoe's "Pirates!" line of books. Using their equally patented skills at crafting story, they've also put together a family-friendly feature that is smart enough not to talk down to anyone. All we can say is, yo ho yo ho, it's a "Pirates!" life for us.
Just as Studio Ghibli's "From Up on Poppy Hill" won the Japanese Academy Award for Best Animation this year, so too did the Ghibli hit "The Secret World of Arrietty" win the Japanese Academy Award for Best Animation last year. The delay in getting "The Secret World of Arrietty" into American theaters was mostly because they were busy putting together a great voice cast for the English dub, which includes Saoirse Ronan, Will Arnett, Amy Poehler and Carol Burnett, among others. Of course, some purists will no doubt want to see the original Japanese edition with subtitles, but however you want to watch it, there's no question that this intimate tale about tiny people secretly living among us is worthy of the Studio Ghibli name.
Combining the worlds of video games and animation seems like such a no-brainer that it's kind of surprising a major studio hasn't taken this angle on things before. Also surprising: that it's Disney, not Pixar, who created this fun romp through the pixelated worlds of Q*bert, Pac-Man, Sonic the Hedgehog and the rest of your favorites. After a number of lean years, it seems that with "Wreck-It Ralph" (and to a lesser extent, 2010's "Tangled") Disney has finally righted their ship and returned to the top of animation. Right where they should be.
Okay, we'll admit it right up front: "Brave" isn't the best Pixar film. It probably isn't even in their top five. It's just a measure of how damn good Pixar is that even one of their middling efforts is still good enough to be the best animated film of the year. Part of that goes to just how advanced Pixar's actual animation is; fans have become so used to Pixar's excellence that there may be a tendency to undervalue their animation, but we urge you to look again at the beautifully detailed renderings of the Scottish countryside. It's as breathtaking as anything they've ever done, and that's saying something. Add to this a plucky, modern heroine and a story that surprisingly focuses on a mother-daughter relationship — pretty much a first not just for Pixar, but for Disney as a whole, other than "Bambi" — and you have a film that will likely grow in stature as people come to discover the small charms hidden inside this blockbuster package.