Countdown: Pencil, Paper, Mouse!

     June 28, 2008

Written by David Kobylanski

Before film was ever an invention, there has always been a twitch in our fingers wanting creation. We’ve wanted to transport ourselves into magical lands in front of the lens and since we began doing it in live action, we’ve also just had to do it with animation. But now, for the first time the characters are having a chance to rank the top animated features based on timelessness, innovation and inspiration. We’ll leave the 10th up to you. No one wants an arguable runner-up on this list. We’ve gone into the vaults, bought our spray paints and drawn stick people; coloring them all to bring you the top 9 on the countdown. Cue the cuteness: our countdown starts at #9…

#9 Les Triplettes De Belleville: As an international co-production between companies in France, Belgium and Canada, the Triplets of Belleville showed us a retro style of animation in a time when computer animation was booming and hand-drawn pioneering was ending. A grandma would set out to rescue her beloved cyclist grandson, kidnapped at the Tour de France, with a flatulent pooch at her side. Bizarre and cleverly grotesque, this toe-tapping movie was nearly absent of any dialogue, contained exaggerated characters and mind-bending inventiveness to create a surreal world. It’s unique styling and near absence of any language makes this a film that belongs to no standalone country but to us all.

#8 Finding Nemo: With the highest selling DVD and the most successful box-office standing for any animated move at its time, it’s the lost and found journey of Finding Nemo that opened our eyes to the big blue world under the surface. We were introduced to an ocean of characters as Marlin, a dull and non-comedic clownfish swam into a wide-eyed Dory with short-term memory loss, on an adventure to save a sun sent to an aquarium down under. For showing us some of the most unique and breathtaking colors, this is a film that will not be soon forgotten, except by Dory.

#7 Toy Story: Taking the purest, and most often the first of life’s relationships, between a child and their toys, this movie showed the opposite side of the spectrum and the love toys themselves have. Only nine years after Pixar introduced the world to a lamp playing with a ball in a short over two minutes long, it’s this film that catapulted Pixar Animation Studios to infinity and beyond. It didn’t toy around and was the first feature-length movie completely animated by computers. Featuring Woody and Buzz Lightyear, it also sprung off a sequel to even higher acclaim and success with a third not far off but it’s the first that was the most daring and proved to everyone that they’d always have a friend in a toy store.

#6 Fantasia: This film isn’t merely a series of clips, nor a fancy departure from Disney’s line of fairytale adaptations. Rather, conducted by Leopold Stokowski, it’s a masterpiece that raised the bar for the entire medium, and orchestrated an early glimpse of what might be possible in the realm of hand-drawn and any future animation and sound design. Night on Bald Mountain offers one of the most chilling visual manifestations of music ever envisioned, while The Sorcerer’s Apprentice takes Mickey’s cheerful mischief to a mature level. But the melting, dinosaur-populated Rite of Spring remains an achievement in animation that has yet to be surpassed in relative comparison to its time. In the year of 1940 when we were still decades away from getting out of our atmosphere, let alone landing on the moon, it’s with this that we ventured along with a piece of music through the abyss of space to land on a volcanic planet where dinosaurs would eventually roam. Fantasia is more than a long line of shorts; it’s an opera where the backdrop is the music. It’s the silent film of your century that was made in the beginning half of the 20th century.

Some breathe life into their characters but this one was brought to real life at #5

#5 Pinocchio: In 1940 a wooden puppet was brought to life by a blue fairy, who tells him he can become a real boy if he proves himself brave, truthful, and unselfish. And thus began the puppet’s adventures to become a real boy, which involved many encounters with a host of unsavory characters. When compared to more traditional works, it’s interesting to admire how much Pinocchio devils in vices and dark themes yet not enough to be banished from seeing the error in his ways. It’s this version that is the most well-known and admired by audiences and still known decades after, echoing the notes of Jiminy Cricket singing us what happens when you wish upon a star.

#4 Beauty And The Beast: The only animated movie to ever be nominated for Best Picture Of The Year at the Academy Awards, this film was the second addition in what is known as the Disney Renaissance. Many considered it a return to classic entertainment where the best writers, musicians and performers collaborate for a family show. The visual effects are still praised today as a stunning early use of computer animation and integration, specifically referring to the sequence in which Belle and the Beast dance around in a 3D ballroom, even using a crane shot to further elevate the spectacular romance. It reached the peak of Disney classics with a long running show on Broadway and Disney on Ice to follow, just telling a tale as old as time.

#3 Bambi: Bambi has became a rite of passage since 1942, and may very-well have become the most unlikely story to have survived this long, in the sense that the book may never have been as well remembered in the decades to follow without this adaptation. We were introduced to the life of a deer from the moment she opened her eyes to see what everyone sees when they open their eyes for the first time, pure wonder. Bambi grew up with themes of man’s deep footsteps in nature and perhaps gave us a lesson half a century before anyone really cared. It made us laugh and made us cry and for some, made them deny. Indeed, even as an adult, it’s hard to come to terms with the fact and iconic image that Bambi’s mother did die.

#2 The Lion King: The sun rose over the savannah and the stampeding of animals and beasts made Africa shake as a young cub that would be king was risen over the kingdom from a cliff top. The Lion King was the worldwide leader in 1994 for box-office receipts, a king on home video, the biggest animated hit of all time and would only be surpassed a decade later by full computer animation. Not being based on an old fairytale gave this film the opportunity to lend new characters to the olds classics for children, like a shaman called Rafiki, the father of the pride titled Mufasa, (Oh let’s say it again, “Mufasa!”), a meerkat named Timon and a pig named Pumbaa. But they call him “Mr. Pig!” The Lion King hit the tallest peak of the Disney resurrection of hits from 1989 to 1999 so much so that it may be remembered forever as the last great predominantly hand-drawn epic. The Disney Renaissance wasn’t afraid to blend in some computerized graphics, as if gradually passing the reigns to the 3D generation while staying true to its roots. With the most beautiful landscapes, a diverse cast of characters; it’s the king of the jungle that found his place in the circle of life, in a film that relaxed us in saying, “Hakuna Matata.”

Singing, “Heigh-ho, heigh-ho, it’s home from work we go,” to the final spot

#1 Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs: In 1934 Walt Disney had to fight to get this princess produced. Many attempted to talk him out of it and mocked it as Disney’s folly while it was in production. Even his kindest friends that wished him well knew he was in trouble but Disney, the fairest of them all, just listened politely and did what he told himself to do. He mortgaged it all to help finance the film’s production, which eventually ran up a total cost of just over $1.5million, a massive sum for a feature film in 1937. It was also a far cry from his sly estimate of as much as $250,000 in 1934.

Snow White spent three years in preparation, coordinated the efforts of three composers, nine story adapters, six directors, twenty-eight animators, two character designers, ten art directors and seven backgrounds painters and was the end result of Walt Disney’s plan to expand the production quality of his studio’s output. Many animation techniques – which later became standards – were developed or improved for the film, including the animation of realistic humans, effective character animation giving each one distinctive movement, elaborate effects animation to depict rain, lightning, water, reflections and the use of the multiplane camera. And can you ignore the quality of sound and Technicolor? This was the pinnacle of perfection.

Everyone that mattered knew it would fail. Fantasies were box-office calamities, cartoons wouldn’t be a thing people would sit through for so long, they didn’t want to see fairytales and the young audience cartoons were aimed at wasn’t big enough to recoup such an extravagant cost.

And when it premiered in December of 1937, a miracle is what Disney needed. Those who said no one would ever pay a dime to see a dwarf picture came themselves to create a box-office phenomenon. Walt Disney had magic after all. Unlike some films, whose greatness is recognized in retrospect, the brilliance of Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs was appreciated immediately by some of the greatest. It grossed $8 million in its first release in 1938 and was the highest any movie had ever made. As far away as the Soviet Union, Sergei Eisenstein complimented it, and closer to home, Charlie Chaplin told The Los Angeles Times that the film “surpassed our high expectations. In Dwarf Dopey, Disney has created one of the greatest comedians of all time.”

It even influenced the future, not only of animation but live-action films. The opening scene from Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane in 1941 of a castle at night with one window lit where Kane is dying is remarkably similar to the shot in Snow White, where a castle stands at night with one window lit where the Queen consults her Magic Mirror after Snow White’s apparent death. MGM even wanted a part of the fantasy and created The Wizard Of Oz. With its flag on the mountain as the first feature-length animated film, Snow White, Doc, Grumpy, Happy, Sleepy, Bashful, Sneezy and Dopey share our #1 diamond on the countdown for making us believe you can awaken from the deepest and darkest of places with a simple kiss.

Thanks for illustrating with us film’s top animated features.

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