Around the time Pixar was making new classics like The Incredibles, Ratatouille, and WALL-E, something awfully annoying started happening. More than a few think pieces started coming out about how the mighty animation house was outpacing most big studios in sheer storytelling prowess. In a way, the writers of these pieces were dead on. WALL-E showed a more nuanced and ironclad understanding of physical comedy than arguably any movie in the aughts. The Incredibles still embarrasses every single movie based on a DC or Marvel property in formal cohesion and emotional resonance. With the exception of Big Night, has any movie about cooking and artistic passion felt so imbued with extensive, hard-won experience as Ratatouille?
The accolades were well deserved, but the fervor stirred up over these movies also touched on a certain, ongoing strain of shallow American exceptionalism. Much like every idiot who says that movies aren’t as good as they used to be is clearly not paying attention to 98% of foreign films, the embrace of Pixar seemed to suggest an ignorance of a long line of underground and foreign animated movies. Pixar’s CEO John Lasseter has an open obsession and affinity for Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli, the production house behind My Neighbor Totoro and Princess Mononoke, but beyond Miyazaki’s influential work, Ghibli’s output has been relegated to cult status. Clearly, those who saw a revolution in anything but strictly American animation in Pixar had missed Only Yesterday, Grave of the Fireflies, or The Triplets of Belleville, amongst a host of other gems.
Part of the issue is that these movies are bleak, more suited for adults in substance than anxious children. Pixar’s ingenuity was in not condescending to children, to treat the audience as attentive, intelligent, and empathetic. Even today, that’s a big deal. When compared to something as thunderously political and visually astounding as Waltz with Bashir, however, Pixar’s triumphs stopped at the water’s edge, rarely even grazing the sublime and the metaphysical. Their movies remain joyous, rewarding, and often hilarious. Still, one wonders what would happen if they took the plunge and made a movie strictly for adults, or adapted something so seemingly impossible to calibrate in live-action as Geek Love or, until recently, Neil Gaiman’s American Gods.
The times are a changing, though. For one, Adult Swim exists. More pointedly, bracingly explicit animated series like Rick and Morty and the unparalleled BoJack Horseman have dedicated, impassioned fan-bases that span all ages, and Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s Sausage Party looks to be doing what Pixar never deigned to do, even if it’s tied to a lot of dick jokes and enough curse words to make George Carlin blush. Not surprisingly, this year saw ecstatic audiences packing in for revival theatrical releases for Only Yesterday and the uncanny Belladonna of Sadness. Both of those films appear on the list of the best adult-oriented animated films below, which I took up in honor of Sausage Party’s release later this week. If ever there were a reason to spend some money on Amazon Prime or iTunes, these wild wonders of boundless imagination would fit the criteria nicely.
A quick note: more than a few of these films could be construed as being made with children in mind. They very well might have been. My thinking here is to single out films that reach beyond the simple yet still stunning wonder of the animated image to touch on thematic concerns that only adults can fully appreciate. In other words, your kids might love these movies, but they won’t fully understand the depth of their existential, societal, and political meaning.