Disney tackles J.M. Barrie’s tale of Neverland and the spirit of childhood.
Directors: Clyde Geronimi, Wilfred Jackson and Hamilton Luske
Best quote: “But Mother, I don’t want to grow up!”
Defining moment: Peter leads Wendy and her siblings across the London night sky.
Parents, do you know where your children are? Maybe they’re following mischievous spirit Peter Pan past the second star and straight on to Neverland, where kids can be kids to their hearts’ content. The sight of grown men threatening children with cutlasses and even a ticking bomb makes this occasionally uncomfortable viewing today (and its dubious treatment of the crimson-hued Native Americans is hard to forgive). But while definitely from a more innocent age, the comedy still plays: Blustery Captain Hook remains an endearingly fallible bad guy, hotly pursued by an ever-ravenous crocodile, while the vigorous action throughout suggests that the Disney team had one eye on Warner Bros.’ Looney Tunes output. It’s somewhat superficial overall, but still the best adaptation of Barrie’s play, perennially unlucky onscreen.—Trevor JohnstonRead more
A career-spanning interview of an elderly film star traces a romantic odyssey fusing life and art.
Director: Satoshi Kon
Best quote: “It’s the key to the most important thing in life.”
Defining moment: When we first realize Chiyoko’s memories and movies are blurred into one.
A fictional reclusive screen legend recalls how she embarked upon a lifelong romantic quest to track down the rebel artist who captured her young girl’s heart. Was she hopelessly deluded, or in the throes of a grand passion many of us will never be fortunate enough to experience? So strong are her memories that her devoted interviewer (and his nonplussed cameraman) find themselves sucked into her past, where personal travails and melodramatic film roles intermingle via Perfect Blue auteur Kon’s dizzying narrative transitions. The sheer single-mindedness of Chiyoko’s journey almost traps the movie in a groove, yet Kon saves the day with some thought-provoking final-reel reveals, by which point the sheer audacity of his fluidly imaginative direction and loving re-creation of Japanese screen history—from samurai swashbucklers to modern sci-fi epics—has long since cast their spell.—Trevor Johnston
Hungarian folktales go psychedelic…and then some.
Director: Marcell Jankovics
Best quote: “Tell your mother to breast-feed you for another seven years, then you’ll be able to pull out the tree single-handed.”
Defining moment: When an animated film starts with a hallucinogenic birthing scene, you know you’re not in Kansas anymore.
Any director who has written 15 books on folklore takes his ancient legends seriously, and in Magyar maestro Marcell Jankovics’s full-on fable, three princes ignore the king’s warning about “the lock which must not be opened.” All hell (literally) breaks loose, and a white mare goddess spawns three human sons—who subsequently take the fight back to the underworld. An archetypal saga involving daunting trials of endurance, it unfolds in a Day-Glo visual style suggesting Kandinsky’s colorful curves, Matisse’s cutouts and way too many prog-rock album covers. It is unlike anything else in the world, ever, which makes this a must-see, though the sheer brutality with which Treeshaker, Stonecrumbler and Ironrubber press through the pit of Hell and back may make this just a bit too heavy-duty for sensitive younger viewers.—Trevor JohnstonRead more
A former J-pop idol’s move into acting triggers psychological meltdown.
Director: Satoshi Kon
Best quote: “The Internet? That’s popular at the moment. What is it?”
Defining moment: The sight of Mima’s alter ego skipping in midair from lamppost to lamppost would freak anyone out.
The pressures of career choices and the threat of a murderously obsessive fan loosen former pop star Mima’s grasp on reality, in a story that explores the dehumanizing effects of the entertainment industry. Perfect Blue also shows how that same industry makes vulnerable women complicit in their own sexual exploitation. This startling first feature reminds us of the immense talent the anime universe lost when director Satoshi Kon succumbed to cancer at 46. No one else would even have thought of doing this intense psychodrama as an animated feature—the source material’s not dissimilar to Black Swan—and surely only Kon had the visual skills to transfer the disturbingly fragmented mise en scène of a Polanski or an Argento into animated form. The outcome is dark, mesmerizing, but also controlled and coherent in a way the hyperimaginative Kon never quite managed again.—Trevor JohnstonRead more
This richly imagined postapocalyptic fantasy is Miyazaki’s first masterpiece.
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Best quote: “Man and insect cannot live together!”
Defining moment: The glow of the rampaging insects’ hate-filled red eyes lines the horizon.
Miyazaki’s first film based on his own original material is a major statement of intent. The man doesn’t just tell stories; he creates entire worlds. That sense of total immersion pays dividends here. It’s truly shocking when the eponymous heroine’s peaceful agrarian community comes under attack from a warmongering nation whose aggressive expansion plans could completely unbalance the postapocalyptic environment, where deadly giant insects lurk in the so-called Sea of Decay. Just as Star Wars did before it, the film thrillingly shows how one individual’s distinctive perceptions can affect events on a cosmic scale, yet the triumph here is the insistence on endeavoring to resolve mankind’s fate rather than deploy more destruction. Looking to discover early Miyazaki? Start with this epic saga of conflict and compassion.—Trevor JohnstonRead more
A couple’s desire for a child inspires a tree stump to come to life—and take over their lives—in this funny absurdist yarn.
Director: Jan Svankmajer
Best quote: “He’s our child and we have to stick by him through thick and thin.”
Defining moment: When the baby devours his own father: Svankmajer never lets Freud get the better of him.
Adapted from a Czech folktale, Svankmajer’s gleefully wicked satire depicts how far a childless couple go to satisfy their parental impulses. After the husband finds a tree stump shaped a little like a human baby, he cleans it up and presents it to his wife, but she soon comes to believe it’s actually their child. Such is her devotion that it somehow brings the thing to life, and its increasingly insatiable appetite has to be dealt with—by any means necessary. With his customary mix of live action and stop-motion animation, Svankmajer explores the more lethally destructive aspects of familial affection and loyalty; at once nightmarish, grotesque and genuinely subversive, the film is also savagely funny as the solipsistic monster grows and grows.—Geoff AndrewRead more
A cosmic journey through time, space and spirituality. With cats.
Directors: Gisaburo Sugii and Arlen Tarlofsky
Best quote: “I’m going to be just like that scorpion…”
Defining moment: An old woman sings “Nearer, My God, to Thee” in the most cracked and haunting voice imaginable.
Kenji Miyazawa’s 1927 novel is a standard text for Japanese schoolchildren but remains virtually unknown elsewhere. Combining eerie Christian mysticism, awestruck pseudoscience and bleak realism, the book follows two put-upon schoolboys, Giovanni and Campanella, as they board the titular train to the stars and beyond. Anime directors Gisaburo Sugii and Arlen Tarlofsky made one major change when they adapted Miyazawa’s work for the screen: They replaced all the central human characters with cute anthropomorphized kittens. But if their intention was to make the story more appealing to youngsters, they were way off. With its meditative pace, unstructured plotting, and rambling, often incomprehensible discourses on morality and mortality, this is about as kid-friendly as a morning in church. For those with patience, however, it is a beautiful, frequently enlightening trip.—Tom HuddlestonRead more
A West African village folktale pits a plucky tot against a fearsome magician.
Director: Michel Ocelot
Best quote: “Why are you mean and evil?”
Defining moment: Any time Kirikou’s tiny legs scamper across the savannah.
French director Michel Ocelot, whose deliberately simple visual style celebrates the power of the silhouette, grew up in Guinea, and manages the rare feat (for a Western filmmaker) of telling a rural African tale without patronizing his subject matter. Instead, the action proceeds with the patience and confidence of a fable, as plucky Kirikou wisely refuses to accept the rule of fear exerted by the stern sorceress Karaba over his home village. Adults will pick up on the political analogy with the continent’s dictatorial rulers, but younger viewers are more likely to be mesmerized by the courage and resilience of the pint-size protagonist. Yes, there’s realistic and entirely nonsexual nudity in the imagery here, but it would be a shame to let Anglo-Saxon prudery stop this delightful film from becoming a much-loved family classic.—Trevor Johnston
Roald Dahl’s beloved but trippy children’s book—about escape, adventure and the company of giant insects—meets its creative match.
Director: Henry Selick
Best quote: “Try looking at it another way.”
Defining moment: The eponymous peach is set free from its tree and rolls to freedom, leaving much bewilderment in its wake.
Many filmmakers have struggled to nail the blend of the whimsical and the macabre in Roald Dahl’s inimitable children’s fiction. Oddly, the ones who succeed best are those who put their own creative personality first: Nicolas Roeg, Wes Anderson and, in this winningly surreal take on Dahl’s least overtly filmable work, Henry Selick. The Nightmare Before Christmas director’s Gothic-style puppetry and doleful sense of humour are ideally suited to this initially melancholy, increasingly manic tale of a lonely young orphan whose life takes a turn for the better when he boards a giant peach bound for New York and populated with lovable mutant bugs. Short, strange and bookended with live-action sequences scarcely less cartoonish than the rest, it’s a fond but inventive tribute to a great storyteller.—Guy LodgeRead more
Jonathan Swift is adapted in the first feature from Disney’s closest rivals.
Director: Dave Fleischer
Best quote: “There’s a g-g-giant on the b-b-beach!”
Defining moment: Lilliputian ingenuity and effort transport their new arrival back to the royal castle.
The achievements of the Fleischer brothers (director Dave and producer Max) have long been overshadowed by Walt Disney, yet they invented many key animation techniques, brought sound to the medium, and found wide audiences for their Betty Boop, Popeye and Superman shorts. Still, Disney’s 1937 Snow White was a game-changer, and the Fleischers responded with their own animated feature, which took the more family-friendly elements from Swift’s caustic original and delivered an upbeat story in which shipwrecked sailor Gulliver intervenes in the senseless conflict between tiny rival nations over the music at a forthcoming royal wedding. The operetta-influenced warbling hasn’t worn especially well, and the knockabout comedy lacks subtlety, yet the thought-through detail with which the Fleischers imagine Lilliput’s micro fixtures and fittings still impresses. A worthwhile reminder that Disney didn’t have it all its way.—Trevor Johnston