To animate is to bring to life. What animators essentially do is create their own world and its inhabitants from the ground up. This world can stick to reality, look at it from a unique perspective, play with its time and era, add to it, subtract from it, twist it, transcend it or completely defy it and bring to life a world born completely out of imagination. What infuses life into these worlds and their inhabitants are their stories and the emotions they evoke. Animation is also a great medium to play with different genres making them wonderfully difficult to categorise into a specific thing. Any story can be told through animation.
It is difficult to pick 5 as the best-animated films because there are just so many that I love. I love Pixar's WALL-E and Ratatouille as much as I love Studio Ghibli's My Neighbour Totoro and Kiki's Delivery Service. They are stories I relate to personally. I return to them when I am feeling low or sick and they never fail to make my day better. Netflix's first animated film, Klaus, is a film I will watch every Christmas for its humour and heartening story. Pixar's emotional shorts like Bao and Kitbull, and Puffball studio's socio-political SWIPE and Shehr e Tabassum manage to pack so much in so little that it is commendable. I hate to leave all these off the list.
Having said that, here are my current top five animated films — the most inventive, personal and richly emotional:
The Mitchells vs. the Machines revolves primarily around Katie Mitchell, an aspiring filmmaker and self-proclaimed 'weirdo', and her dysfunctional family. They are on a road trip when a robot apocalypse hits the earth and everything with a computer chip comes to life. Only the Mitchells can save the earth.
The film combines laugh-out-loud comedy, exciting action and relatable family drama with science-fiction and adventure. Doodles are drawn over the vibrant 3D animation to mirror Katie's imagination. I love it when filmmakers make it personal. The authenticity seeps through and shines throughout. The message about acceptance and bridging generational gaps comes through brilliantly. It is a wholesome entertainer not to be missed.
Here's another film that feels intimate and features a young girl developing a conflicted relationship with her parents. This movie, though, shifts its focus from her and delves deep into the workings of her mind. The protagonists are her emotions: Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger and Disgust. The adventure and action play out completely in her mind.
What I love about this film is how creatively it constructs the human mind. The protagonist's core memories power the islands of personality. There's a train of thought, a recall tube, a memory dump, a dream production house, an imagination land and more. It tackles mature themes in a way that can be easily understood. It is also a rare story that points out how toxic it is to keep trying to be happy and repress other emotions. Instead, it asks us to embrace all our emotions.
If Anything Happens I Love You is only 12 minutes long and is probably the most minimal and raw in its animation among all the films on this list. It is also the most silent and least colourful of the lot but it has an extremely strong emotional core. You are bound to be touched by this sensitive film.
We see a couple, distanced and depressed. Their shadows do much of the talking. These shadows and certain objects are used to reveal their past and the reason for their distance and grief. The meaning of the title becomes apparent.
Flee is an animated documentary. That itself was a shocker for me. How can a documentary — a film supposed to portray real events — be animated? Turns out, it has a good reason to be animated and it is not the only one. The use of animation is an empathetic choice; it is to protect the identity of its subject while also allowing him to tell a story long untold.
The film documents the life of Amin Nawabi, a refugee from Afghanistan, as he flees his childhood home and his identity. News clippings and real footage are interspersed throughout to remind us that these are real events. The animation also allows the film to stage times in Amin's life which could not be recorded and the ones he doesn't clearly remember. Through Amin's life, we see the destruction of war and the toll it takes to live a life of fear and repression. We see what it means to find your home and your people.
Spirited Away is the coming-of-age story of a ten-year-old Chihiro who is trapped in a bathhouse full of spirits. Her parents have turned into pigs and she must find a way to undo this curse and return to the normal world by navigating the world of the spirits by herself.
The joy of watching and rewatching Spirited Away is in experiencing the unsettling spectacular world that Hayao Miyazaki creates, and in discovering something new every time. The line between good and evil is often blurred. We are never given an explanation about how the world functions and who the creatures are. Much like Chihiro, it is for us to figure out on our own. Watching Chihiro figure out her way out of the world could really help us navigate the real world. The film is rich not only in its visuals but also in its emotions and subtext. There are moments of stillness and calmness amidst the relentless action that will allow you to breathe and take the film in. That stillness is an experience worth having.