While it may not have been a year abundant with great animated features, 2017 was a year which contributed entertainment, heart, and innovation to the medium through a few special films.
Every year, the world of animation continues to find new and innovative ways to utilize the medium. Free from the constraints of live action, animation has the ability to take us anywhere from the perspective of anyone. For 2017, we ventured to places both new and familiar. Sure there were plenty we would probably prefer never to speak of again, like The Emoji Movie, and of course, there were others that we got whether we needed them or not, like another Cars installment and Despicable Me 3. But aside from those were a few unique and bright gems that stood out amongst the rest in a year where the animation category seemed to be lagging compared to previous years.
That being said, each year animation continuously proves itself to be more than just a children’s medium, and 2017 really drove that idea home. From Coco, a Pixar film for all ages to enjoy, to Loving Vincent a story for adults, about adults, an animated film never equates to being just “for kids.” And a cartoon is never just a “cartoon” in the sense that it should be funny or not taken as seriously. Like any live-action feature, it can be just as serious and moving as anything else.
So let’s look back at some of 2017’s best-animated films.
Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie
This film probably shouldn’t have worked. Don’t get me wrong. As a child, those books were some of the absolute best out there but thinking about the story of two elementary school boys hypnotizing their principal into becoming Captain Underpants in the framework of a movie, seemed like it would be a little overly silly and going in, I didn’t expect too much. Especially not for it to be as entertaining for me as an adult as the books were for me as a child. But of course, DreamWorks brought the story to life in the best of ways. The film is silly, sure, with lots of slapstick and potty jokes, but it is so in a way that’s fun, not annoying, and does justice to the original books that would make any 2000s kid proud, along with hopefully inspiring a new generation of readers to pick up the Captain Underpants books.
20th Century Fox’s spin on a beloved children’s classic The Story of Ferdinand is a film that’s as adorable as it is meaningful. In fact, it’s surprising this one hasn’t recently been made into a feature film already since it’s a near perfect representation of a hero’s journey. Ferdinand is a bull who would rather deal with flowers than matadors, but when the time comes, faces the challenge in a way only he can, determined to end the senseless violence that goes on in bullfighting. No matter how hard he tries to escape it, bullfighting is a part of the culture he lives amongst, which he discovers he must work to change rather than run away from. Most of the jokes that will land with both kids and adults have much to do with the physical comedy of the story; a goat sleeping with her head in a bucket, or a bull as large as Ferdinand watching TV on a couch, were surprisingly funny, and are comedic tools that only animation can really play around with and this film nailed. Only time will tell if the longevity of the movie can remain as the original story has, but either way, it definitely ends the year on a sweet note.
A heart-wrenching tale about a young girl living under the Taliban rule in Afghanistan during 2001, The Breadwinner follows 11-year-old Parvana as she begins dressing as a boy in order to be the breadwinner for her family after her father is imprisoned. As the Variety review for the film notes, this one would be pretty difficult to watch in live action, which is true. Watching the story play out in animation was already difficult enough, as it is a story about oppression, abuse, and pain. But that’s where animation really works its magic. It makes a difficult story digestible to audiences who might not have given the film a chance otherwise. Its strong feminist themes, with a young girl facing adversity against all odds and fears back in one of the most dangerous places for a woman in 2001, a glimmer of hope shines in reminding us all to continue the fight each day, every day, and how far things still have left to go. The animation in the film is also visually stunning, placing a very moving story amongst beautiful artwork.
Now, this list isn’t a ranking, but if it was, Coco would most surely be at the top. In terms of visuals, story, and song, Pixar hit it out of the park with this one, making it everything you could want from a movie. There are so many different themes and messages to take away from the film; be your own person, appreciate your elders, remember those who have passed, etc, but none of it ever felt forced into the film, and all felt rather natural, like a true journey in self-discovery would. Once again, Pixar proves itself capable of telling a great story at the heart of its gorgeous animation, and this time chose a story following a child who aspires to be a musician in Mexico City. Representation matters, even in animation, and seeing an authentic story told through a mainstream outlet is exciting and makes all the difference in the world to those watching, who know, love, and are a part of the culture. Coco was undoubtedly more than just a hit for 2017. It was a hit for the decade.
An interesting and quiet tale about a man who goes on a journey to try and settle the mystery surrounding Vincent Van Gogh’s death a year after it occurred told in one of the most unique ways possible. In true Van Gogh fashion, the entire film was painted, becoming the first animated feature to do so. By choosing to do this in what I’m sure took a countless number of hours to complete, the film is gorgeous to watch and steps right into the world of Van Gogh, often matching frames of the film to look like Van Gogh paintings such as The Starry Night. Telling the story of Van Gogh through a mystery/investigative format was interesting and original in its own right, but where the film truly shines is in its visuals, innovative for the genre and proving that animation is a continuously evolving and creative medium.
The Lego Batman Movie
After the surprising success of The Lego Movie, the franchise decided to continue with even more Lego films. Unlike its 2017 counterpart The Lego Ninjago Movie, Lego Batman really landed. Maybe because it was about Batman, or perhaps because it was the 2nd installment rather than the 3rd, the spark hadn’t quite worn off yet, but Lego Batman was pretty great. These films always remind me of something like Robot Chicken in that the parts of it which utilize stop-motion make it all the more appealing. More than just visuals, however, the Lego movies are a perfect combination of cinematic storytelling quality for those of all ages. Kids love the Legos, while adults love all the references and adult sensibilities in the film. Plus, it’s hard not to love a story about a lonely Batman who ultimately needs to find friends and learn to work with others at the end of a day full of fame and glamour.