The Ted Hughes novel came to Hollywood in a studio movie that broke technical and storytelling boundaries—if not box-office records.
Director: Brad Bird
Best quote: “I am not a gun.”
Defining moment: The giant carries Hogarth in his hand, high above the treetops below.
Before directing The Incredibles and Rataouille, animator Brad Bird made his feature debut with this charming, intelligent adaptation of the late 1960s Ted Hughes children’s story The Iron Man. Best known at the time for his work on The Simpsons, Bird moved the tale from Britain to 1950s Maine, lending it distinct Cold War flavor. A young boy, Hogarth (given the surname Hughes in honor of the poet, who died in 1998, a year before the film’s release), discovers a metallic giant in his hometown and fights to protect it from being pulverized by the military—while simultaneously teaching it how to live in peace on earth. The widescreen film has a streak of smart humor as well as a winning, harmonious worldview, and mixes computer animation and more traditional techniques: The CGI was mostly invested in rendering the giant as convincingly as possible, while traditional hand-drawn techniques were reserved for the humans. Visually, the film offers stunning moments without sacrificing a pleasingly old-fashioned air. It wasn’t a success at the box office, although it was hailed as a rare example of a family movie with heart and brains. Thankfully, Pixar gave Bird a chance to fly again.—Dave Calhoun
The film that made Christmas creepy.
Director: Henry Selick
Best quote: “Jack, you make wounds ooze and flesh crawl!” (It’s a compliment.)
Defining moment: The opening song, gloriously and ghoulishly upbeat.
It all started in 1982, with a poem written by Tim Burton, then a humble animator at Disney. A year later, Burton pitched A Nightmare Before Christmas to his bosses as a TV special. But the powers that be thought the idea “too weird,” and the project went on the back burner until Beetlejuice and Batman made Burton a hot property.
Too weird? Not a bit. Burton’s graveyard fairy tale is a good old-fashioned musical, with song-and-dance numbers that would get Gene Kelly tapping his feet. It’s the story of Jack Skellington, the king of Halloween Town, who discovers a portal to Christmas Town and likes what he sees—children throwing snowballs instead of heads. No one is dead. Jack crafts a plan to kidnap Father Christmas, or Sandy Claws, as he calls him.
Directed by stop-motion maestro Henry Selick from Burton’s story, the movie took 15 animators almost three years to make. Working with more than 227 puppets, they completed just one minute of the film a week. That translates into mind-boggling detail, right down to the mayor’s spider tie. The dialogue is deliciously macabre, the storytelling dizzyingly inventive and the characters touchingly sweet. A twisted delight.—Cath Clarke
This Lewis Carroll adaptation, from a brilliant Czech surrealist, is too wild and wonderful for kids.
Director: Jan Svankmajer
Best quote: “Alice thought to herself, Now you will see a film…made for children…perhaps.”
Defining moment: The Mad Hatter’s tea party: hilarious, anarchic and a fabulous example of Svankmajer’s ability to make the impossible seem absolutely real.
Jan Svankmajer’s first feature is a characteristically inventive but rigorous account of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, faithful in spirit to the original while remaining conspicuously true to his own highly distinctive brand of surrealism. Blending live action (Kristyna Kohoutová, who plays the heroine, is the only human in the film) with various forms of stop-motion animation, Svankmajer creates a wonderland notable for its bizarre dreamlike logic and its grotesque beauty: Skeletal creatures scuttle and steaks crawl while Alice, no stranger to thoughts of cruel whimsy, changes size and becomes her own doll. It’s brilliantly imaginative, bitingly witty and fittingly Freudian. This is no saccharine celebration of innocence, but a foray into the darker recesses of childhood fears and desires. And therefore, perhaps not a film for children.—Geoff Andrew
A live-action gumshoe must prove that a cartoon rabbit has been wrongly accused of murder.
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Best quote: “I’m not bad—I’m just drawn that way.”
Defining moment: Roger falls for the ol’ shave-and-a-haircut trick.
Live action and animation have been mixed multiple times, but never quite as brilliantly as in Robert Zemeckis’s blockbuster film noir parody. The setting is postwar Los Angeles, where characters like Bugs Bunny, Dumbo and Mickey Mouse are actual Hollywood contract players as opposed to artists’ caprices. A bowtied-and-overalled hare named Roger (voiced with sputtering glee by Charles Fleischer) is accused of murdering the human founder of Acme products for having slept with his comely spouse, Jessica (smokily realized by Kathleen Turner). Only alcoholic private eye Eddie Valiant (Bob Hoskins) can clear this poor bunny’s name and save him from the death-dealing hands of the conniving Judge Doom (Christopher Lloyd). Zemeckis and chief animator Richard Williams (whose Academy Award–winning work here was part of a deal to complete his long-gestating opus The Thief and the Cobbler) keep the eye-popping sights coming. Highlights are the many classic cameos, including a hilarious piano duel between Daffy and Donald Duck; a careering car chase involving a Bronx-accented cab named Benny; and Eddie’s own “dark night” in the ominously cheery Toontown, where even Droopy Dog is out to get him.—Keith Uhlich
Disney’s most stylish baddie concocts a devilish plan.
Directors: Clyde Geronimi, Hamilton Luske and Wolfgang Reitherman
Best quote: “I live for furs. I worship furs! Is there a woman in all this wretched world who doesn’t?”
Defining moment: The puppies sneak past Cruella De Vil, covered in soot, disguised as black Labradors.
What is it with Disney villainesses? So much wrath and murderous rage with so little cause. A year after the evil fairy Maleficent put a curse on Sleeping Beauty for not being invited to her christening, dognapper Cruella De Vil arrived. Flicking ash on the carpet, her mwah-ha-ha plan is to turn 99 dalmatian pups into a fashion statement. With its modern London setting and jazzy score, 101 Dalmatians dragged Disney into the 20th century, leaving behind fairy tales, princesses and musical numbers. Oddly, it’s the earlier scenes, before the puppies arrive, that stick in the mind. Sick of the bachelor life, Pongo studies the lady dogs and their “pets” (owners) passing under his window. And the meet-cute in Regent’s Park is witty and utterly lovely. Later, the twilight bark—the doggie telegraph communicating news of the missing puppies—is Disney at its finest.—Cath Clarke
The film that makes little kids (and grown adults) cry.
Directors: James Algar, Samuel Armstrong, David Hand, Graham Heid, Bill Roberts, Paul Satterfield and Norman Wright
Best quote: “Faster! Faster, Bambi! Don’t look back! Keep running! Keep running!”
Defining moment: Bambi and his mother graze peacefully in a clearing. Her ears prick up. Something’s not right. A gunshot rings out. They run for their lives.
For lots of us, Bambi is so many firsts: the first time we cried in the theater, when…you know when; the first time we realized that really bad things happen to adorably cute deer. In 1942, Walt Disney described Bambi as “the best picture I have ever made, and the best ever to come out of Hollywood.” Today, it still has friends in high places. Toy Story director John Lasseter and the Pixar crew are huge fans, arguing that, from boy to buckhood, Bambi contains some of Disney’s most charming animation (Walt set up a small zoo at the studio for his team to study the animals). And in the roll call of Disney supporting actors, Thumper the rabbit is an all-time great. Despite its reputation for being sentimental, the film’s closing scene—Bambi abandons his mate and newborn twin fawns to join his father in the forest—is as un-Disney as it gets.—Cath Clarke
Nothing is child’s play in this vivid, gutsy adaptation of Richard Adams’s novel about a colony of rabbits seeking a new warren.
Director: Martin Rosen
Best quote: “All the world will be your enemy, Prince of a Thousand Enemies, and when they catch you, they will kill you. But first they must catch you.”
Defining moment: The harrowing apocalyptic vision of young Fiver, which sets the story—and decidedly mature tone—in motion.
Not quite children’s adventure, not quite grown-up epic, rich with classical allusions and biblical allegory, Richard Adams’s unexpectedly popular novel posed something of a challenge to animators: How do you make a creature feature that’s not too cute for adults, and a story of death and displacement that’s not too grim for families? Martin Rosen’s solemn, urgent and exquisitely rendered film strikes just that balance. There are sequences in this riveting survival tale to terrify viewers of any age, many involving General Woundwort, the face that launched a thousand childhood nightmares. But there’s comforting, compassionate sweetness, too (exemplified by Art Garfunkel’s sentimental theme song, “Bright Eyes”), all folded into powerful, traditional storytelling. Nobody would dare make anything like it today.—Guy Lodge
Disney gets with the ’60s.
Director: Wolfgang Reitherman
Best quote: “I’m the king of the swingers / The jungle VIP / I’ve reached the top and had to stop / And that’s what’s botherin’ me.”
Defining moment: King Louie of the Apes and Baloo the Bear’s scat-’n’-dance routine.
Blame the hippies. The Jungle Book is so loopy, hip and happening, you can’t help wondering if Disney’s animators were passing the bong as they worked. Just look at the vultures, with their mop tops and British accents (the Beatles were intended to do the voices but John Lennon refused). After rejecting an early draft of the script as too dark for a family film, Walt Disney instructed a second team to drop “the heavy stuff” from Rudyard Kipling’s stories of Mowgli. They created some of Disney’s most lovable characters: Baloo (the Bill Murray of bears) and smooth-as-silk Shere Khan the Tiger. The film is a high point for Disney musical numbers—“Bare Necessities” and “I Wanna Be Like You” are pure joy. Walt himself died during production, and historians credit the huge box-office success of The Jungle Book with saving the studio’s animation department from closure.—Cath Clarke
Aardman’s first feature applied their signature style to a tale of farmed chickens trying to break free.
Directors: Peter Lord and Nick Park
Best quote: “All my life flashed before my eyes.… It was really boring.”
Defining moment: When our feathered friends finally fly a homemade mechanical bird over the fence.
Britain’s Aardman Animations had been going since the early 1970s, and had won three Oscars for its short films “Creature Comforts,” “The Wrong Trousers” and “A Close Shave” (the latter two featuring Wallace and Gromit), by the time that the company’s founder, Peter Lord, and his collaborator Nick Park codirected their first feature, Chicken Run, in 2000. A feathery spin on The Great Escape, the film showcased the same clay animation Aardman had employed to bring the much-loved Morph character to life on British TV in the 1970s and ’80s. Only now their budget was bigger, they were working with DreamWorks and Pathé, and the voices included Mel Gibson as an arrogant American chicken among an ensemble of winged prisoners in Yorkshire desperate to escape a vicious farm and its chicken-pie machine. The Aardman style—amusing, down-to-earth, homey dialogue coupled with simple, oversize features—survived the company’s first brush with Hollywood.—Dave Calhoun
Threatened farm animals seek the help of super-smart experimental rodents from a lab.
Director: Don Bluth
Best quote: “We can no longer live as rats. We know too much.”
Defining moment: The fearsome, golden-eyed Great Owl smashes a spider, chomps on a moth—and offers some sage advice.
Call it the work of a rebel: In 1979, Disney animator Don Bluth left the cost-cutting studio in frustration (along with several other colleagues) to start up a company that still valued old-school craft. Their first feature was this remarkably sophisticated adventure, about a field mouse seeking solutions to the problems of an ailing son, an aggressive farmer and the potential destruction of her community. Enter the heroic rats of NIMH (National Institute of Mental Health), who apply their artificially boosted levels of intelligence to the calamities at hand. The style of the animation is hand-painted and traditionally sumptuous, requiring thousands of hours of work, but the real beauty here is in the making of entertainment targeted at kids who enjoy using their minds.—Joshua Rothkopf