With Shrek Forever After stinking up theaters, my thoughts turn to the days when animated films weren’t rife with knowing pop-culture references, bodily function humor, and Smash Mouth songs. Sure, animation buffs have the yearly Pixar masterpiece to look forward to and the occasional oddity like Coraline and 9. But theatrical animation is mostly geared toward the juice-box-and-crayons set these days. It wasn’t always this way: there was a time when animation offered up sci-fi and fantasy stories — many adapted from comics or Japanese manga — that took risks and pushed the genre to new heights. Let’s take a look at some groundbreaking animated films that took their inspiration from comics to create something bold and new. (No sassy talking animals here.)
Adapted from his own acclaimed manga series, Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira is still the gold standard of Japanese animation. The stylized Toyko setting is as influential on modern sci-fi as the noir Los Angeles of Blade Runner, while nods to the film continue to surface in modern pop culture. A live-action adaptation, rumored to star Leonardo DiCaprio, has lost steam, which is just as well: this one’s best viewed in two dimensions.
Admittedly, Heavy Metal‘s whole “scantily clad babe riding on a dragon to the tune of Black Sabbath” thing is more than a little dated. But sharply animated sequences like B-17, about zombie B-17 fighter pilots, and So Beautiful, So Dangerous (with Harold Ramis and John Candy as Nyborg-snorting aliens) make up for the stiffly animated sword-and-sorcery clichés. And you can’t beat the soundtrack (particularly if you’re a Blue Öyster Cult fan).
Mask of the Phantasm
Spinning out of the acclaimed Batman: The Animated Series
(still one of the best
depictions of the Dark Knight in any medium), Mask of the Phantasm
is a dark and underrated chapter in the Caped Crusader’s big-screen
exploits. The plot is far more enthralling than anything in the
Joel Schumacher movies. Plus, Abe Vigoda voices a crime
boss. That alone makes this forgotten gem worth a rental.
When the Wind Blows
on the graphic novel by Raymond Briggs (The Snowman), this moving
1986 British film features a gorgeous mix of hand-drawn and
stop-motion animation and songs by Roger Waters and David Bowie. It’s
also one of the most depressing movies ever made: it’s about an elderly
English couple dying of radiation poisoning after a nuclear holocaust. It nonetheless pushes the boundaries of animation and is worth
seeking out. Just keep the hankies close by.
Hayao Miyazaki (Ponyo) — often referred to as the Walt Disney
of Japan — is no stranger to fans of high-quality animation. The 1984 film version of his manga Nausicaä
of the Valley of the Wind
was a hit in Japan, but the U.S. version was butchered and released under the
very eighties title Warriors of the Wind. Disney eventually released
the original cut on DVD, and fans of Star Wars and The Lord of
the Rings will find much to love in the restored version.
And five more animated comic-book gems worth seeking out.
Incredibles – Okay, so technically this one isn’t based on a
comic. But can you fault me for including this Pixar superhero classic?
Ghost in the Shell – Was The Matrix a rip-off of Mamoru
Oshii’s cult-classic anime? Fanboys debate, while the rest of us enjoy
the moody animation and thought-provoking script.
Beyond: Return of Joker – An underrated direct-to-DVD flick
that connects the future world of Batman Beyond to Batman: The
Animated Series. Some truly intense sequences of Joker torturing
Robin more than earn this one its PG-13 rating.
TMNT – While the pizza-loving reptiles’ CGI flick lacks the turtle
power of their original live-action outing, Vanilla Ice and his ninja
rap are, thankfully, nowhere to be found.
League: The New Frontier – The early years of the Justice
League play out in eye-popping Art Deco style in this DC adaptation of Darwyn Cooke’s acclaimed comic-book series. Anyone looking
to bring the league to the big screen would be wise to ape this one.