Among so much 2016 coverage, we’re particularly proud of our collective Best Films of 2016 feature, but we do realize its paucity in one area: animation. Only one animated film made it onto the list, and that doesn’t really reflect just what a strong year it was for the form — in fact, it was possible that there were so many outstanding ones over the past 12 months that the votes got split and a couple more potentials narrowly missed the cut as a result. Not only has photo-real CG imagery in “live action” films gone from strength to strength (in movies like “The Jungle Book” and “The BFG,” for example), but the sheer variety of fully animated offerings means that whether you’re an arthouse aficionado, a sci-fi/fantasy junkie or an exhausted parent just looking for something shiny to distract the kids for an hour or two, 2016 has provided a huge number of options that are drawn rather than filmed.
Just one note: We’re working off the 27-title-strong longlist for the Oscars, so while all of these films have had a qualifying 2016 release, in many cases they won’t get their proper wide release until sometime this year, but sure, that gives us all the more to look forward to. Here are our 11 favorite Animated films that we saw at festivals and in multiplexes throughout 2016 — feast your eyes.
In many ways, Garth Jennings and Christophe Lourdelet’s “Sing,” made by Illumination Entertainment, who also brought us the inferior “The Secret Life of Pets” this year as well as the inexplicably world-conquering “Minions,” probably shouldn’t work. There are at least six interweaving storylines — mostly following the main plucky anthropomorphic animal talent-show contestants in their outside lives, facing personal challenges — and there are enough familiar pop songs in it to potentially distract or irritate. And yet Jennings and his animators are able to make each character refreshingly unique even when you think you know their archetype, which overcomes the worst of the somewhat-ADHD storyline-jumping (which, to be fair, is also probably what helps younger children stay engaged). But really, what makes “Sing” um, sing are the musical contributions from its stars. Some of these performances are to be expected, such as those from part-time chanteuse Scarlett Johansson, but many others come as a pleasant surprise, like ‘Kingsman”s Taron Egerton or Reese Witherspoon delivering a pretty barnstorming version of Taylor Swift‘s “Shake it Off.” It’s neither particularly deep nor particularly original, but this candy-colored, eager-to-please movie is an untaxing way to entertain your family — especially if it includes little kids — and succeeds in that aim far more than some of the live-action releases playing right across the hall in your local multiplex.
10. “Finding Dory”
It may have felt a little like second-string Pixar, but we could hardly ignore the biggest movie of 2016, now could we? A follow-up to 2003’s “Finding Nemo,” which not only announced the arrival of Andrew Stanton (an original Pixar player) but quickly became one of the most beloved animated features of all time, was always a daunting proposition. But Pixar jumped in anyway and, somewhat unsurprisingly, made a splash. Focusing an entire film on Dory (Ellen DeGeneres again) was a dicey proposition, considering her short-term memory loss would seemingly impede any narrative forward momentum, but the team (led by Stanton and co-director Angus MacLane) found a way around that by surrounding her with a whole host of new, variously afflicted characters. (Seriously, in a year that devoted significant attention to the marginalization of the “other,” “Finding Dory” was full of lovable characters with impediments, disabilities, and shortcomings, yet who were empowered rather than hampered by them. It’s positively super-heroic.) Who’d have thought we’d get a “Wire” reunion (Idris Elba and Dominic West) in the form of a pair of disgruntled sea lions? (Seriously Gerald, get off that fucking rock.) So though it falls short of the transcendence of something like “Toy Story 3” or “Inside Out,” “Finding Dory” proved that Pixar is undaunted by the size, complexity, or expectations of a follow-up like this. Just keep swimming, right?
9. “The Red Turtle”
Not everyone here was as beguiled by Dutch director Michael Dudok De Wit‘s largely wordless fable as the enraptured Cannes critics, but even a relative naysayer has to admit that Studio Ghibli‘s first international co-production (this is a French/Belgian/Japanese team-up) is utterly ravishing to look at. The slight story of a young man washed up on a desert island who finds unlikely companionship when the only other inhabitant, the titular reptile, turns into a human woman, it won’t do much to entertain children, and its lack of dialogue occasionally feels strained, but adults seeking a rarefied and extremely calming cinematic experience, in which the immaculate imagery and equally exquisite sound design take precedence over traditional action and character beats, can find a great deal to admire. Which is not to say there is no action — there are scenes in which the ongoing struggle to survive, and the never-ending battle with the elements, are rendered with acute tension and precision. Ultimately, it will come down to how willing you are to invest in its slow rhythms, and how much resonance you can find in its rather opaque allegory, but either way, this is one of the most singular animations of this or any year, and a very promising and artistically uncompromised glimpse at what even a Miyazaki-less Ghibli can achieve.
8. “Miss Hokusai”
“Jackie” wasn’t the year’s only unconventional biopic about a headstrong, determined woman whose persona was marginalized by the history books thanks largely to the man she was most closely associated with. “Miss Hokusai,” a lyrical, painterly new film from Production I.G. (who most Western audiences will know as the company behind the animated sequence in “Kill Bill, Vol. 1“), tells the story of Katsushika Ōi, a young artist who worked for her famous artist father, the celebrated Hokusai (he’s the one responsible for that painting of stylized waves that you’ve probably seen in countless yoga studios and dorm rooms). Instead of a birth-to-death story, filmmaker Keiichi Hara takes a more contemplative approach, with the story unfolding as a series of loosely connected, occasionally surreal vignettes. Instead of diluting its power, this unusual approach magnifies it. Sure, Katsushika was repressed, treated badly, and sidelined almost out of existence, even though it looks, more and more, like she was responsible for the majority of his most famous paintings. But through her quiet strength, her resilience, and her refusal to give up or be pigeonholed, she found her strength. This was a woman who was able to create magnificent works of art and didn’t give a damn whether anyone knew it or not. And maybe that’s what being a true artist is.
7. “April And The Extraordinary World”
It might not be as prolific as the U.S. or Japanese industries, but the French animation scene is still one of the world’s strongest, with three movies making our list this year (and joining other modern classics like “The Triplets Of Belleville” and “Persepolis” from the nation). Undoubtedly the most Gallic of the trio is “April And The Extraordinary World,” a film that does more than almost anything ever to capture the tradition of European graphic novels on the big screen. The pleasingly convoluted story is set in a world where Napoleon III was killed in an attempt to create invincible supersoldiers, and scientists have been disappearing for 70 years, creating a very different Europe, heavily polluted and driven by steampunk-like technology. The parents of April (Marion Cotillard) are among the scientists who were taken, but now, in 1941, she seems to have accidentally perfected the supersoldier serum they were working on, bringing her cat Darwin (Philippe Katerine) back from the dead, but putting her in the sights of bumbling policeman Pizoni (Bouli Lanners). Jean Rochefort and Marc-André Grondin are also among an all-star cast (the GKIDS dub is strong, with Tony Hale, Paul Giamatti and Susan Sarandon among those lending their voices, but stick with the subtitled version), but it’s the visuals, which nod to French artist Tardi, that make this worth the watch: a fascinating, beautifully realized world in which to set a rollicking, surprising adventure that comes across as a much more effective version of Brad Bird’s botched “Tomorrowland.”
6. “The Little Prince”
Our third French film (though helmed by an American director, “Kung Fu Panda” helmer Mark Osborne), “The Little Prince” takes on the tough task of adapting Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s beloved 1943 book — a brief, expressionistic work that has defeated plenty of filmmakers, including Stanley Donen, before now. Some purists might have been horrified from a distance, with the film adding a brand new, CGI-animated, present-day story to the stop-motion animation of the original tale, but in practice, it works surprisingly well, the additions proving to be a genuinely moving invention that bring out the themes and emotion of Saint-Exupéry’s work. It focuses on the friendship between a Little Girl (Mackenzie Foy), desperate for a break from her pushy mother (Rachel McAdams), and the elderly Aviator (Jeff Bridges) next door who tells her the story of the Little Prince (Riley Osborne), who he met after crashing in the Sahara. The stop-motion sequences are positively stunning: It’s hard to imagine a better version of the original story, especially with a cast that could look like stunt-casting on paper but works beautifully in practice (Bud Cort, Marion Cotillard, Benicio Del Toro, James Franco, Ricky Gervais, Albert Brooks). But despite the more traditional, Pixar-ish look of the framing sequence, it’s still more European than Hollywood in execution, with a deep melancholy and themes of loss, remembrance, acceptance, and the fleeting nature of childhood that result in a pretty heavy sob by the time the credits roll. Paramount unceremoniously dumped the film, so it went largely unseen, but with Netflix having stepped up, you can watch it from your chair right now, and we highly recommend that you do.