2014: A Remarkable, Exciting Year for Animation

By  · Published on December 15th, 2014

2014 was a marvelous, thrilling year for feature-length animation. While such a good crop is never easy to predict, the early shot in the arm that was The LEGO Movie certainly set the tone. That the first real critical hit of the year was an animated feature, released in the dead of February amidst Oscar season, the RoboCop remake and The Monuments Men, is a significant thing. Just a cursory look at the 2014 films that qualify for the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature should put a smile on your face, even if some were panned and others seem obscure. From the best of American studio fare to The Tale of Princess Kaguya, perhaps the year’s most evident masterpiece, there’s been a lot to celebrate.

That said, not everyone is entirely happy about the state of animation in the USA. At a recent event at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York City, animator Bill Plympton took the time to elaborate on what he sees as the industry’s two biggest problems. The first, a complaint that has become widespread, is that computer animation has become far too dominant. Major studios essentially only fund CG work, and it’s harder to find distribution for more traditionally (or more experimentally) animated films.

The other problem is that animation has become synonymous with children’s entertainment. Virtually all of the animated features given theatrical releases in 2014 were directed primarily to kids, all but two of the 20 films on the Oscar qualifier list. This is particularly frustrating for Plympton, whose Cheatin’ is a sexually transgressive whirlwind of infidelity and discord.

The legendary independent animator is basically right on both of these points. The major studios are more likely to fund something like Rio 2 or Planes: Fire and Rescue than they are to back anything even remotely like his own work, and distributors fit into roughly the same mold. There’s a lot of reliance on formula, which leads to films that despite their craft and their heart, don’t really excite fans of the form. How to Train Your Dragon 2 is a solid, entertaining movie that delights more than it impresses.

Yet 2014 was a great year because of the the sheer number of genuinely interesting counterexamples. It makes sense, once again, to start with The LEGO Movie. The first film by Warner Animation Group, it’s a prime example of innovation within a big studio. The work done by Australian studio Animal Logic, which mimics stop motion animation of actual Lego bricks, is in many ways more of a triumph than the refreshing but still quite Hollywood script and vocal performances.

20th Century Fox

The same sort of unexpected ingenuity can be found at 20th Century Fox with The Book of Life, Jorge Gutierrez’s love letter to Mexico’s Dia de los Muertos. More of a stylistic risk than a formal one, the CG animation here is more about capturing a very specific vision than it is about mimicking the Pixar-esque faux-photorealism that has come to run the table. One could even make the argument that Disney’s Big Hero 6 is something of an experiment as well. By making an animated Marvel film, the studio blurs the line between the kids-only animation audience and the general target audience of a superhero blockbuster.

But enough apologizing for the big studios. The most inspiring work of the year came from elsewhere. Three of 2014’s most gorgeous features offer an eclectic master class in how many different ways an animated movie can look and feel. Ernest & Celestine, which received an Oscar nomination in the 2013 cycle, does wonders with its commitment to abstraction in scale. Its title characters, a bear and a mouse, expand and contract in an ever-shifting and loosely drawn world that frees them from the boredom of a rigidity of size.

Song of the Sea, meanwhile, is all about the colors and textures of magic as seen by director Tomm Moore. Its glistening, sometimes haunting use of rich blues, greens and silvers sends the audience into another world. The team at Laika studios, meanwhile, embrace the formal excess of filling the screen with as many charismatic details as possible. The Boxtrolls, the year’s best stop-motion feature, is an absurd panoply of cheeses and hats, of visual puns and overwhelming tableaux of toothy smiles and charismatic debris.

But what about animation for adults? Again there was some really excellent work, though unfortunately it was also the hardest to find. Plympton’s own Cheatin’ is a wicked little ride through a throbbing, mutable landscape of lust and rage. It will be distributed some time in 2015, but has had an awards qualifying run in Los Angeles. Wrinkles, which finally secured a US theatrical release in 2014, also achieves its best moments through the fantasies and hallucinations of adult characters. Yet it is the work of Signe Baumane that really raised the bar. Rocks in My Pockets, which may very well have a shot at an Oscar nomination, is an animated memoir unlike anything we’ve seen. Its deep chronicle of both one family’s history with depression and entire nation’s struggle through the 20th century is made unique and transcendent by Baumane’s somber sense of visual humor really .

The thrill of 2014 comes from how easy it is to bounce like this from film to film, praising what they have in common and how they diverge without necessarily comparing them in overall quality. There is more than one way to make a great animated feature. The biggest problem with the prevalence of CG projects for children is that it underlines the opposite notion, that animation is just one thing. And if that were the case we wouldn’t have any of the greatest masters of the form, one of whom led a legendary studio to its final masterpiece this year.

Studio Ghibli

I am speaking, of course, about The Tale of Princess Kaguya, a film which in different moments achieves almost all of the individual virtues of the other work produced this year. That’s not to say that it can replicate the charm of Laika’s stop motion or the specific style of The Book of Life, but it elaborates so beautifully on so many basic principles of these other hits. It plays with size as charmingly as Ernest & Celestine, rivals the detailed scenes of The Boxtrolls and outdoes the thematic ambitions of every other movie mentioned in this article. It is a brilliant, spiritual and perfectly transporting swan song for Isao Takahata.

Of course, the finality of the film is causing some of us a lot of stress. Studio Ghibli is shutting down, which may not exactly bode well for the future of feature animation. After Kaguya and the much-beloved new documentary on the Japanese animation house, The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness, what will happen to the world of cartoons? Obviously the first answer is that these films, Kaguya and the others, will always be staggering works that we can come back to. The other solution, however, is to look other places for the future.

Here are a few of them, so we can perk up and look ahead into the rest of the decade with optimism. The Annecy International Animated Film Festival is always a beacon of interesting, creative work that can offer a glimpse at where the form is moving. Even if many of the best films don’t end up securing US distribution, there’s the hope that these animators may cross over. The past two years have seen the top prize go to a Brazilian film, 2013’s Rio 2096: A Story of love and Fury and this year’s The Boy and the World. We may very well be on the cusp of an animation boom in the South American country.

Meanwhile, it’s important to not forget innovation in shorter formats. Animated shorts are becoming easier and easier to see. The Oscar nominees for Best Animated Short are now given a theatrical run every year, and filmmakers frequently make their work available on Vimeo and other platforms. The Oscar shortlist this year includes work from veteran artists like Plympton and Torill Kove, as well as work by new voices such as Moonbot Studios. The Sundance 2015 lineup already looks fantastic as well, featuring new work by David O’Reilly and Don Hertzfeldt. It’s an exciting time to love animated movies, and it only looks to get better from here.