This year looked promising for fans of good mainstream animation. Pixar, after taking 2014 off, was back with two feature releases, and neither of them sequels. But while the first, Inside Out, was a hit with critics and audiences, the second, The Good Dinosaur, wasn’t so well-received. In fact, it’s the worst-reviewed Pixar movie that isn’t a Cars installment (Monsters University is also worse if you go by Metacritic). And it’s likely to be the lowest-grossing of them all, too.
But The Good Dinosaur is actually pretty good. It’s not better than Inside Out, nor is it any worse. The two movies are too different to be compared and measured against each other. Inside Out is the more clever movie, even if we do account for it not being completely original, while The Good Dinosaur has more interesting visuals, as it combines one of the studio’s most cartoony protagonists with its most photorealistic backdrops – in a way, this seemed pioneering, yet it also reminded me of Yoram Gross’s 1977 hybrid film Dot and the Kangaroo and its many sequels.
The two Pixar features do have something big in common: they both follow their main characters on a journey, as they attempt to get back home after becoming lost, far away from their family or team. Inside Out follows two emotions, Joy and Sadness, as they try to get back to the command center of a little girl’s brain they reside in and service. The Good Dinosaur sees an Apatosaurus and his new caveman child companion return to his family farm after being swept downstream by a storm.
It’s not a strange affinity, as a lot of animated features these days concern an odyssey of some sort. And this year appears especially tied to the trend. Three of the title creatures of Minions embark on an adventure to find a new villain to serve so they can then reunite with the rest of their lackey clan. In Home, a human girl teams up with one of an alien race that’s invaded Earth and they share in a global adventure to find her mom. Even Alvin and the Chipmunks: Road Chip, which is live-action with animated characters, is about, as its punny title suggests, a road trip.
One of the best animated features of the year, which manages to be more cerebral than Inside Out without literal design, is Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson’s Anomalisa, and yes even that stop-motion affair for adults focuses on a man in transit, flying to Cincinnati for work and then back to his wife and son in Los Angeles. Better still is the dialogue-free Shaun the Sheep Movie, which involves another character carried off and lost far from home. Yet that film, also stop-motion but in another style, follows a flock on the quest to find their missing master.
Studio Ghibli’s final film (temporarily?) came out in the US this year, and that too just barely adhered to the pattern. The plot of the dependably directed (by Hiromasa Yonebayashi) When Marnie Was There does concern a girl who travels from her home and then back, for a fairly simple story with a fantasy element. And other foreign animations follow suit, such as the minimally but imaginatively drawn Brazilian offering Boy & the World, which gets by almost completely through visual storytelling for a plot about a kid in search of his missing father.
So the dismissal of The Good Dinosaur for its simplicity or formulaic plot, for which it’s been criticized, is not fair. In the context of the rest of the inventions of Pixar, sure it’s slight but that’s not a bad thing. If it can be criticized, it ought to be for its lack of memorable characters and weak plot details but not the plot itself. It may not make as an indelible impression as Inside Out or even Minions, but that also means it doesn’t have the annoyances. Inside Out is enjoyable and creative but much of it endures for the same reasons a chewing gum jingle does. It’s catchy cinema.
Inside Out is a favorite animated film for many, and it probably will win the Oscar, but everything that’s good about it can be found better in other features from this year. When Marnie Was There is a better coming-of-age drama. Boy & the World is more clever in its vision, delivering things we’ve actually never seen before – or at least never seen that way before. Anomalisa is more in tune with the mind and emotions of its main characters without any over-explained mechanisms. There’s a lot of visual spectacle, but man is it talky.
This year also brought some very notable animated short films and animated documentaries and animated documentary short films. Notable not necessarily meaning good, either, in the case of Pixar. Ironically, Inside Out was paired up in theaters with possibly the most derided short the studio has ever produced, a musical love story about volcanoes called Lava, while the less-loved Good Dinosaur came with another wonderfully cute effort called Sanjay’s Super Team, featuring a semi-autobiographical story linking religious mythology and comic-book superheroes.
More delightful is the minimalist sci-fi short World of Tomorrow, which may not even be the best thing ever made by filmmaker Don Herzfeldt yet is nevertheless one of the best things made by anyone this year. It’s cute and smart and positively unusual, a mesmerizing adventure through time and space about a little girl encountering her grown-up clone from the future. And that little girl, Emily, is one of the most unforgettable new film characters introduced in 2015, especially given the fact that nobody who watches the short can only seem to watch it just the once. It’s an addictive little nugget.
As for the docs, most nonfiction animation this year has been found in hybrid works, with it supplementing films like Cobain: Montage of Heck and The Wanted 18, which is Palestine’s submission for the foreign-language Oscar this year and stars stop-motion cows that might fit in well with the woolly bunch in Shaun the Sheep. The feature includes live-action talking heads, but at its core is an animated reenactment of events as seen from the perspective of dairy farm animals.
Then there’s the uniquely expressive nonfiction short Last Day of Freedom, which illustrates a man’s taped testimonial of his anguish over his brother’s execution for murder – a fate he had a hand in as the person who uncovered his sibling’s guilt. Having just won the best short prize at the IDA Awards, opposite best feature The Look of Silence, it’s a film deserving more attention and buzz than docs, shorts and animation, let alone a combination of all three, typically receive (you can watch it in full here).
Last Day of Freedom has a trippy quality to it, like most animated docs and animated segments of docs. That’s why you use animation in nonfiction, for the purpose of approaching the real through dreamy and surreal and/or poetic means. But it’s also often why you use animation in fiction, as in the case of the very real yet also psychologically and subconsciously figmental film Anomalisa. In general, animation can depict things that movies completely done through live-action can’t, like having a group of sheep go on a mission in the big city.
And it’s a more acceptable sort of film these days for silent comedy and wordless narratives, because the real world isn’t so mute or, in the case of the brilliantly conceived Shaun the Sheep, verbally incoherent. Animation, which accounts for a lot of the fantastically driven special effects in live-action films, just in a way that’s meant to be seen seamlessly intwined with the living action, continues to be the best way to take us, the audience, on a virtual trip of any sort. And these are the top five such trips we’ve had the pleasure to go on this year:
- Shaun the Sheep
- World of Tomorrow
- Last Day of Freedom
- Boy & the World