Top Ten Animated Films That Screw With Your Head – part 1

There is a noble heritage in animation of using the limitless possibilities of the medium to present a world entirely unlike the real world.  Of late, the rise of CGI has been responsible for a drive to create ever-more convincing depictions of the real world.  This seems beyond futile to me and Robert Zemeckis’ photo-real movies (The Polar Express etc) fail, for me, in just about every respect.  There is no point in using animation to create real people, you might as well just use real people!  The magic of animation is that it can present visions that are simply not achievable in the real, world where the laws of physics hold sway.  Some things can only be presented in animation and that should be celebrated.

Rango treads a line between these two traditions … It presents a photo-realistic vision of a world that simply could not exist.  A careworn, ramshackle wild west populated with a menagerie of anthropomorphic animals all of whom live together irrespective of their natural habitats.  The town of Dirt becomes their natural habitat.  It’s almost a though the works of Enid Blyton or Kenneth Graham were filmed by Sergio Leone and David Lynch.  But the film goes beyond this because, as a bifurcated armadillo points-out early on, “It’s a metaphor!”  The film plays with our post-modern sensibilities and feeds our appetite for the unusual.

Yes, the film is full of meta-narrative quotations from other films, subtle or obscure ones, like Singin’ in the Rain (1952) and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998) or stark-staring-bleedin’ obvious ones like Apocalypse Now (1979) and A Fistful of Dollars (1964).  Yes, its story is wafer thin … bogus sheriff learns to protect the town that trusts him … making it a sort of Carry On Chameleon!  But it goes beyond these all-too-common motifs.  It is a film which is not simply content to engage us emotionally, it wants to stimulate us intellectually as well, by constantly pulling the rug out from under our metaphorical feet.

It is certainly a heady mix which, when Rango wanders into the desert and begins to hallucinate, crosses the line into The Surreal, a place where animation is particularly comfortable!

 Animation often does and should stretch the mind of the viewer, it should open your eyes wide and show you marvellous new things the like of which you have only ever dreamed and, if you are occasionally reminded that you are watching a cartoon, that’s not such a bad thing, it means you are conscious and not in the blank-eyed, slack-jawed, empty-headed state so many big Hollywood movies seem to require.

With that in mind – I have begrudgingly conceded that I need to publish a list.  It is, simply put: My Top Ten Animated Films That Screw With Your Head.

Now, I freely concede there is some wonderfully experimental stuff in Disney films, particularly the earlier ones, but you’ll likely be more than familiar with them, so I’m not going to include them here.  Similarly, there is a whole universe of extraordinary animation by the likes of Jan Svankmajer, Jiri Barta, Lotte Reiniger, Zbigniew Rybczynski, Stan Brakhage and my personal favourites, Norman McLaren, Terry Gilliam and, in a league of his own, Ray Harryausen, any one of which would seriously zap you in the head, but they tend to produce shorts rather than features so I’ll leave them out of this list.  They deserve a list of their own, anyway!

So, without further ado:

My Top Ten Animated Films That Screw With Your Head:

10:  La Planète Sauvage - Fantastic Planet (1973)

click to enlarge to Brobdingnagian proportions

 I first heard of this film at the end of the seventies when it was featured in Starburst magazine, every issue of which I pored over, practically memorising every word since, in 1978, there wasn’t a lot of other movie-related information available to me!  This film seemed wildly exciting simply because it was different from anything I’d seen before. 

Sadly, it isn’t; exciting, that is.  It’s essentially a version of Gulliver’s Travels, with the human race reduced to pets kept by gigantic blue-skinned aliens call Draags.  Some humans have escaped captivity and set up their own civilisation on this psychedelic and vastly-out-of-scale planet.  Like Rango, it’s a metaphor!

Produced by the peace, love and pass the spliff generation in the joint crucibles of late ‘60s fervour – Paris and Czechoslovakia - It was the first feature by French animator René Laloux, based on the designs of surrealist artist Roland Topor.

9: Metropia (2009)

It’s possibly the presence of Vincent Gallo as the voice of the main character that makes this film feel like an Independent American movie, but it’s actually Swedish.  Unfairly unreleased in much of the world, it tells a tale of a non-conformist in a 1984-like dystopia where civilisation is teetering on the brink because of a disturbingly familiar financial crisis.  The movie’s central metaphor is The Underground: all of Europe’s underground systems have been joined together so people can move around freely without ever needing to go to the surface.

The weirdness lies in the CGI which has taken photographs of real faces and distorted them slightly, to give every character a deathly blank feel and the whole film a disturbingly quality of the unheimlich (look it up).

There is an official website for Metropia here.

8: Renaissance

Another cross-cultural mongrel, this is a French, British, American, Luxembourgian co-production.  It’s a cyberpunk film shot in stark black-and-white (making it look more like Frank Miller’s Sin City comics than Miller and Rodriguez’s film version did).

Set in a piled-high Paris of the future, it concerns a corrupt mega-corporation, the fountain of youth and gangsters.  The stark visuals are very hard on the eyes, initially, but you quickly learn the film’s short-hand and are drawn into its other-worldliness. 

The film is produced through a process called rotoscoping which is a tried-and-trusted animation technique going back almost a century to the early work of Max Fleischer, where the performances are filmed then traced by the animators.  Modern rotoscoping employs computers to produce the final image but, other than that, the process remains largely unchanged.

7: Strings (2004)

 Arguably this isn’t animation, because it’s puppetry.  But it’s my list, my rules.  Like a lot of the films here, this is a peculiarly European movie, this time being a Danish-Swedish-Norwegian-British co-production. 

The conceit with this film, which is an idea bordering on genius, is that the puppets know they are marionettes, they are aware of their strings and, indeed, their strings are most important to them as they stretch up into the sky connecting them to the thing that gives them all life: be it, Heaven, God or merely a great Frank Oz in the sky.

The logic of life as a puppet is beautifully explored, but, as with all good animation, the clever depictions of an alternate form of life are merely the background to an astonishingly ambitious epic story.  The DVD has a documentary on it showing  just what lengths the producers went to ensure the film was finished to the standard they needed (including mortgaging houses and selling cars).  It was worth the effort.

Ignore the appaling voice-over on this trailer and just bask in the wonderous imagery ...

6: Baron Prasil – The Fabulous Baron Munchausen (1961)

 This film is a collage of animation styles, including 3D models and 2D cut-outs interacting with live action.  It also mixes Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon with Rudolph Erich Raspe’s The Surprising Adventures of Baron Munchausen.

Given Munchausen’s claims (and it’s worth remembering that the fictional character is based on a real 18th century German nobleman with a reputation for, shall we say, exaggeration) of a flight on a cannon-ball and a journey to the Moon, animation was the perfect way to present his adventures.

The film was also a clear and considerable influence on the magnificent Terry Gilliam and for that, alone, it deserves your attention.

This trailer has been cut together by a fan, but it better represents the film than any other clips I could lay my cursor on, so enjoy ...

 And tomorrow, I'll be unveiling my top five ... Ooh, the tension is almost unbearable ...Or, you could save your finger-nails and just click here.

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