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Friday Five: Five Great Animated Films (Not Made by Disney)

Welcome to Friday Five, a column dedicated to all things pop culture. Every week, we’ll put together five recommendations for you from the worlds of film, television, books and music, each curated to a different theme.

Animation tends to get a bit pigeon-holed in the United States. Not only is it seen as primarily a medium for children, it is one dominated almost entirely by one studio. And while this is no slam on the House of Mouse, Disney has, shall we say, a rather definitive style that makes it more difficult for animation that falls outside of that focus to really shine. Luckily for fans, there are still any number of different studios that have produced some animated classics of their own.

So, if you’ve gotten a little sick of hearing “Let It Go” for the billionth time or want to see something more oriented toward adult fare, here are five non-Disney animated films worth checking out.

5. The Secret of NIMH (1982)

Mrs. Brisby’s (Elizabeth Hartman) youngest son Timothy has fallen gravely ill, while her home is simultaneously threatened by the local farmer. Her only hope to save both lies with the nearby rats, who are far smarter and longer-lived than they should be, thanks to the machinations of the mysterious organization, NIMH.

Based on the novel Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, The Secret of NIMH acted as Don Bluth’s shot across the bow to Disney Studios. Frustrated with the constraints of his former employer, Bluth struck out on his own to create films that could still speak to children but also address darker, more complex issues and, boy, does his first feature film deliver. Despite the main characters all consisting of sweet-looking talking animals, the film’s imagery is far darker than most of Disney’s output, mixing in elements of science fiction and fantasy into a tale of genetic experimentation and redemptive love. Though not a film for the littlest ones, your kids will probably only appreciate it more and more as they get older.

4. Millennium Actress (2001)
Japanese language with English subtitles

Genya Tachibana (Shōzō Iizuka) looks forward to interviewing his favorite actress, Chiyoko Fujiwara (Miyoko Shōji), whose film career has spanned the ensuing decades of post-war Japan. As Chiyoko reflects on her past, fact and fiction begin to blur together, creating an artistic tapestry around a central, core mystery that will last the entirety of Chiyoko’s life.

Though Satoshi Kon’s last film Paprika is probably better known Stateside, mostly for doing Inception before Inception, Millennium Actress is undoubtedly his masterpiece. Presented as an ode to twentieth century Japanese cinema, Kon uses every trick in the animator’s box to weave together a beautiful, surreal tale of life, loss and the power of movies. Genya and his cameraman find themselves transported smoothly from Chiyoko’s modern-day home to her post-war adolescence to the world of samurai and science fiction she portrayed so ably on film, her non-linear story representing the slipperiness and strange connections of memory. Though lacking any particularly egregious violence or nudity, this is absolutely an adult film, with one of the most memorable, tear-jerking final scenes in animation.

3. Persepolis (2007)
French language with English subtitles

Based on her own autobiographical graphic novel of the same name, Marjane Satrapi relates the story of her childhood and coming of age in pre and post-Revolution Iran, as well as the culture clashes and identity crises she experienced during her education in France.

Persepolis ably adapts its source material by keeping it cartoony, black and white style and using it to portray the inner thoughts and uncertainties of the young Marjane. Religious police become looming black figures towering over a young tween, while puberty becomes an experience in humiliating horror, as Marjane despairs of her changing body. Though movie lacks the pseudo realism of Millennium Actress, the film is no less powerful in its subject matter, using its simplified figures and backgrounds to enhance the frustrating (and sadly, ultimately fruitless) fight against a culture that has turned against its own people.

2. Coraline (2009)

Young Coraline (Dakota Fanning) has been forced to move to a dreary, ramshackle home far from her friends. Stewing in her resentment against her parents, she discovers a hidden passageway to another house with her Other Mother (Teri Hatcher), who seems much more amendable to giving Coraline everything she ever wanted. However, those gifts come with a high price.

Laika Studios’ first full-length feature film ably adapts Neil Gaiman’s children’s book into a creepy, twisted tale of maternal love turned toxic. The use of stop motion enhances the gothic nature of the story’s horror, with character designs in Coraline’s real world just exaggerated enough to become off-putting and disturbing in the world of Other Mother. Little touches, like small cotton balls used to portray smoke or steam, add a certain whimsey to the visuals, even as Other Mother and her minions become increasingly dangerous. While the film’s ending doesn’t quite tie it all up as neatly as it could have, Coraline is still an overall great movie for kids who prefer Halloween to Christmas.

1. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse (2018)

Miles Morales (Shameik Moore) is your average high school freshman whose life is turned upside-down when he’s bitten by a mysterious spider and given superpowers. Further complicating his life is a mission endowed to him by the one and only Spider-man himself (Chris Pine), along with the appearance of a whole bunch of other spider-people (and one pig) suddenly appearing all over New York.

It’s a rare moment to feel like you’ve suddenly seen an entire medium take a quantum leap forward in technological abilities, but Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse has that in spades. Like Pixar’s Toy Story before it, Sony took existing animation technology and remixed in an entirely new way, creating a film that is visually stunning, with every, single frame capable of serving as a standalone comics panel. It also doesn’t hurt that the movie is a delight from beginning to end, with characters both popular and obscure appearing to give Miles sometimes excellent and sometimes awful advice over the course of his hero’s journey. And I dare you not to cry when Stan Lee appears in a poignant and funny cameo in one of his final films.

And that’s it for this week. What other animated features do you think get short shrift due to Disney over-saturation? Comment with your thoughts and suggestion below!

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