Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Toon-arama: Top Non-Disney Cartoons

by tryanmax

There’s no question that when it comes to animated features, Disney rules. Even in the digital age, where the barriers to entry are far lower, the classic studio reminds us with blockbusters like Frozen why they are the beginning and end of cartoon movies. Still, every now and then another studio will make waves or even steal the spotlight, if only for a moment.

NOTE: This isn’t really a “best-of” list so much as it is a “must know” list.

Anastasia (1997)

If this were a ranked list (which it is not) Anastasia would probably be number 1 simply because, to this day, Disney is wrongly credited for this film even by those who should know better. It’s not hard to understand why. It is a princess-centric musical featuring talking animals and magical villains. Moreover, with former Disney animator Don Bluth directing, the animation style borrows heavily from Disney while keeping the same high production values.

Yellow Submarine (1968)

This is a must see film if only for its connection to the Fab Four. That said, it is a wildly entertaining and surrealistic show. I daresay it is unparalleled in that last respect. The plot is not much deeper than a typical Saturday morning adventure cartoon, existing only to set up songs from Revolver and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band plus a few previously unreleased novelties. However, the animation captures perfectly the psychedelic aesthetic of the time and remains instantly recognizable.

Fern Gully (1992)

This is the quintessential tree-huggers cartoon. Time has not been kind to this environmentalist propaganda piece. Even present-day greenies are likely to cringe at the heavy-handed save-the-rainforest message as its related by mystical noble-savage fairies who turn to a (surprise!) white guy to save them. That’s without mentioning how deeply stuck in the 90s the soundtrack is. (Robin Williams raps?) Yet its mark remains on the culture, as indicated by some of the flack James Cameron’s Avatar received for seeming to imitate the cartoon.

The Secret of NIMH (1982)

This may well be the film that saved American animation. Don Bluth, fed up with the artistic constraints and lack of respect at the studio, jumped ship to create his own studio. Despite an almost non-existent budget, Bluth managed to produce an exquisite film that completely eclipsed Disney production values that that had steadily declined over the previous two decades. While in the end, Bluth Studios was a short-lived affair, it gave Disney a much-needed kick in the seat.

The Land Before Time (1988)

While this endearing tale about a group of baby dinosaurs’ harrowing journey to find their parents in a tumultuously changing world is highly enjoyable in its own right, it really makes the list for one reason only: a legacy of twelve direct-to-video sequels.

Shrek (2001)

This film deserves a spot just for launching the most successful animated film franchise to date, even if the sequels drove what was a brilliant concept deep into the ground. Shrek won acclaim and made its mark by directly parodying Disney’s classic fairy tale movies. At the same time it put DreamWorks animation in a shoulder-to-shoulder stance with elder studio.

The Iron Giant (1999)

This is the first outing as feature director by Brad Bird and what debut! Though a bit more serious than the work he would become later known for, Bird’s cold-war allegory previews of the sense of style and humor that would eventually permeate The Incredibles. At the time this film was released, musical fairy tales were all the rage (as they are again) so The Iron Giant didn’t fare so well at the box office. However, it gained a loyal fan base on home video and is now regarded as one of the best traditionally animated features of the era.

The Prince of Egypt (1998)

While this isn’t the first feature by DreamWorks Animation, Disney’s closest rival so far, it is the film that showed them to be a serious player. While their traditional animation department would soon fizzle out in favor of CGI, this first outing was epic in the truest sense, not in small part because it tackled the same material as The Ten Commandments. It does, however, depart from the Heston classic quite a bit and even won an Oscar for best song.

The Lord of the Rings (1978)

I was first introduced to the animated The Lord of the Rings in my junior high English class, the last week before Christmas break. This ambitious film is perhaps the most extensive use of rotoscoping ever, to an unfortunately jarring effect. Another unfortunate aspect is the film’s abrupt end midway through the second book due to the studio’s decision not to produce “Part II.” Still, it is a loving and faithful adaptation of Tolkien’s work that took the lifeless interpretation of Peter Jackson to gain full appreciation.

Everything by Hayao Miyazaki

Admittedly, I’m no anime buff, but Hayao Miyazaki is impossible to ignore. I haven’t seen his entire catalog yet, so I’m reluctant to name a best or to say which of his films is most impactful. That said, his titles, including Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke, and Howl’s Moving Castle seem to pop up in almost every discussion of animation these days. I recommend you check some or all of them out as I also get caught up.


AndrewPrice said...

An excellent list, tryanmax. Sadly, I must admit that I haven't seen them all. I've never seen The Iron Giant or Fern Gully for example. I also need to check out the Hayao Miyazaki stuff.

AndrewPrice said...

BTW, let me stress that this version of The Lord of the Rings is truly amazing. I can't recommend it highly enough.

Kit said...


I've only seen Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke and both were excellent. I want to see The Wind Rises.
Trailer here: LINK

Interestingly, most of Miyazaki's movies have been released in the US by Disney. Though they were produced by Studio Ghibli.

Its been a while since seeing Iron Giant but the ending is incredible. "Superman... "

tryanmax said...

Andrew, no biggie. Lots of people haven't seen any traditional animation that wasn't put out by Disney. They didn't really have any competition until the late 80s. (And you're not missing much with Fern Gully which I will revisit in a few weeks.)

tryanmax said...

Kit, knowing the Disney connection, I was somewhat reluctant to call Miyazaki's films non-Disney, but ultimately they are different enough from what Disney puts out that I deemed them OK. :-) By contrast, I consider The Brave Little Toaster a Disney film even if was produced by Hyperion because of the deep connections to Disney.

PikeBishop said...

Speaking of Don Bluth, how about some love for "An American Tale?" A great story about the immigrant experience in America and featuring what must be the first identifiable Jewish animated character in history!

PDBronco said...

One personal preference for the Studio Ghibli/Hayao Miyazaki films (and I've seen quite a few of them), forget the usually awful english dub and view them with the original Japanese sound track. It best captures the emotion of the films.

My recommendations: Ponyo, Howl's Moving Castle, Spirited Away, Porco Rosso, My Neighbor Totoro, Castle in the Sky.

I credit John Lasseter with bringing Studio Ghibli to America. He was the one who really pushed Disney (before the Pixar merger) to market the films here, and to make sure they kept the original language soundtracks on the DVDs.

tryanmax said...

Pike, An American Tale is a really good one, too. I debated whether to put it on the list, but I didn't want an all Don Bluth list. It follows well in the footsteps of NIHM and "Somewhere Out There" is still a fairly popular song even as the movie is less remembered. Good call!

tryanmax said...

PDBronco, I can't really respond as you are clearly more familiar than me. I've only watched dubbed versions, never checked for a Japanese track. I generally prefer subtitles, but IDK for these. There is so much going on visually, I hate to miss a moment, but I'll try it.

Dave Olson said...

No love for Heavy Metal?

KRS said...

Great list, T-Max. Also like your theme that they're important for reasons that do not always include the quality of story telling. Fern Gully - ugh! - is clearly the most historically notable example of mindless polemic bilge I have ever seen.

Regarding Anastasia, one of the distinctive tangents it takes, as opposed to the Disney princess model of the period, is the fact that the princess is driven by desire to find her family and emerges in the final conflict fighting for something bigger than herself. The "prince" of the story, while following the time worn "rascal becomes a gentleman" trope, is not the primary drive behind her passion and is accepted only after he gives her up. Lots of good moments in this movie.

The Prince of Egypt made a brilliant move, recognizing that the Rameses and Moses were raised as brothers, by creating a strong brotherhood. That bond, which Moses must shatter to do God's will, makes the movie all the more poignant and heart rending to a level that no other depiction of Genesis has achieved. They deal with the plaques in a musical montage with Rameses complaining about how he is being treated as Moses cries out for both Egyptian and Jew - it works. Rameses is awful, but in the end you cannot help but feel some sympathy for what a pathetic creature he has become.

And Iron Giant is just one of those rare movies where there is not a minute wasted. It expertly plays off both our cold war nuclear fears and invading aliens of the 1950s. It tells a great buddy story, while allowing things to tumble out of control because of one pompous bureaucrat. And even though the US military kicks off the final conflict and is ultimately responsible for the mayhem that ensues, the movie treats them with respect, as patriots trying to do the right thing.

IMHO, the really interesting thing about your list, T-Max, is how it shows that these movies have all delivered an emotional impact that is entirely beyond the scale we would expect a "cartoon" to achieve.

tryanmax said...

Dave, Sorry, I'm not familiar with that one. The name is familiar, but I've never heard much about it. I guess I'll have to seek it out.

AndrewPrice said...

You don't know Heavy Metal?! I wonder if that's a generational thing?

tryanmax said...

KRS, I think you found something I didn't notice myself, but you are absolutely right. I debated whether to mention Antz as that was DreamWorks animation's true debut, but despite good box-office, critical acclaim, and a controversy involving PIXAR's A Bug's Life, it was their second outing with Egypt that really made people sit up and take notice.

RE: Anastasia, Fox/Bluth actually accomplished what has long been demanded of Disney well before the latter studio--a princess story where marriage isn't her only motivation.

tryanmax said...

Andrew, I've heard it mentioned in passing, but I've never so much as heard it described. Whatever impact it had, it must've dispersed rapidly. That said, adult-oriented animation has always struggled in North America. I considered mentioning Fritz the Cat, which would probably eclipse Heavy Metal in like significance, but even that had a limited impact in the long run.

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, It's from 1981 and it was big among metal heads for a few years in the 1980s. The best way to describe it is that it's the film a group of high school metal heads would make if they tried to bring an Iron Maiden album cover to life. I'm kind of agnostic on it.

Backthrow said...

Heavy Metal was an attempt to bring the self-same adult-themed comic book/magazine from the 1970s-1980s to life through feature film cartoon animation. It's a sci-fi/fantasy anthology, the stories linked together by an evil green alien orb, with an emphasis on sex, drugs and rock 'n roll, for stoner teen appeal (remember that this was the Cheech & Chong era). Each segment was done in a different style, by a different animation studio (all small Canadian & UK studios that normally did work on tv commercials and such), based on artwork/stories by comics artists like Moebius, Berni Wrightson, Howard Chaykin, Mike Ploog and Richard Corben, so as to have the feel of the magazine.

The non-animation personnel involved were basically comedy heroes of the 1980s: Ivan Reitman, Dan Goldberg, Elmer Bernstein (all worked on MEATBALLS, STRIPES and GHOSTBUSTERS) and voice acting by John Candy, Eugene Levy, Harold Ramis, Joe Flaherty and John "Dean Wormer" Vernon, among others. Special effects used in conjunction with the animation were by John Bruno, who'd subsequently work on POLTERGEIST 1 & 2, GHOSTBUSTERS, FRIGHT NIGHT and supervised the effects on James Cameron's features from THE ABYSS up through AVATAR.

The animation is all full, but uneven, since the production didn't quite have the resources of Disney, nor any computer-assistance, all hand-drawn stuff, with some (good) rotoscoping in spots. Just about everything in it looks like imagery from metal and prog-rock album covers of the time, and the soundtrack constantly shifts between a memorable symphonic score and background tunes by Black Sabbath, Cheap Trick, Devo, Journey, Sammy Hagar, Blue Oyster Cult, Donald Fagen, etc.

All the pop music kept it off legit home video for a number of years, so the only way to see it for a long time, before the music rights were finally cleared for DVD, were occasional broadcasts on Cinemax/HBO, and subsequent bootlegged videotapes made from those broadcasts, which made it a video 'holy grail' for a lot of fans in the 1990s. Fans of the magazine criticized the movie for being too adolescent, rather than sophisticated or cutting-edge in its stories.

All in all, it's fun movie junk food, harkening back to the era of very early MTV, USA Network's NIGHT FLIGHT and Friday Night 'Skinemax'. Almost all of it is played tongue-in-cheek, apart from a zombie horror segment and the final, extended segment about an amazon warrior woman.

Unknown said...

That's interesting, because none of my favorite animated features are Disney productions. Admittedly, some were Disney releases, such as the Pixar movies Monsters Inc, Finding Nemo and The Incredibles. Other favorites include Shrek, Ice Age, Wallace and Gromit, and (if it is allowed) Team America: World Police.

tryanmax said...

John, Technically speaking, puppets and marionettes are live-action, but for the purposes of this discussion, I'll allow it. ;-)

Tennessee Jed said...

Tryanmax - very nice post. I know a lot of those, bu no all. I always thought Bluth to be very good. The only one I actually never heard of is Iron Giant.

Rustbelt said...

Late to the party, but here's my addition: a film probably even less known than 'Heavy Metal.' A true gem. The 1982 anime version of 'Aladdin and the Magic/Wonderful Lamp.' ("Arajin to maho no ranpuI") first saw this on the fledgling Disney Channel back in the 80's. (Yes, even Disney had to sub-contract to fill 24 hours of programming back in the day.)
This film has REALLY become rare. Unlike, Disney's 'Aladdin,' this one isn't played out as a comedy. And despite having drama and comedy in it, I wouldn't quite call it a dramedy, either- more of an adventure-based story. The film has elements not seen in some other versions:
-Aladdin's interactions with his vagrant friends and overworked mother;
-a far more intimidating wizard (I don't think his name is given) who seals Aladdin in the cave as punishment
-a smaller genie in a ring that Aladdin wears (the wizard gave to him fro protection inside the cave), and saves him from a hoard of giant cobras in the cave
-Aladdin is forced to 'gallery showdown' with the son of the Grand Vizier to win the hand of Princess Nadra; (he later has the genie build them a palace)
-interestingly, neither genie refers to themselves as a genie. Both call themselves the slave of the ring/lamp respectively; I think Aladdin only uses the word 'genie' once
-Aladdin and Nadra marry halfway through
-Aladdin and Nadra ultimately have to survive an almost surrealist nightmare world inside the wizard's fortress in Africa at the film's climax; it's truly a great feat of animation. And though this is anime, It lacks the oversized features, stiffness, and still shots that are normal to anime. In fact, given the detail and fluid moment, for a long time I thought this was actually a western feature.
-and no, this film's genie is definitely NOT Robin Williams

For the life of me, I couldn't find any good clips of the film on the 'Net (more on that in a second). So, instead, after an exhaustive search, I found the movie's opening and closing theme. HERE.

And here are some still pics: Pic1 Pic2 Pic3 Pic4 Pic5

Rustbelt said...


BTW, one of the problems I found while searching for clips was that the dubbing has seemingly been done twice. And the one all over Youtube sucks. The original version I saw as a kid had fluid dialogue and excellent voicework. The one I saw in all the clips on Youtube had 'statement' dialogue and D-grade voicework. Unfortunately, I suspect this is the official version.
You know, I've seen this phenomenon once before. (Prepare for Nerdgasm.)

The movie in question was 'Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster.' The dubbing was good, and not just for a Godzilla movie. Good dialogue and voice actors who really seemed to care. I only found this version on VHS. Years later, when the disaster known as the (first) American Godzilla came out, this film was re-released by Toho Studios as 'Godzilla vs. Heodora' (That being the smog monster's actual name), on DVD. The dubbing was atrocious voiceover and the dialogue stilted beyond belief. I have a theory for this:

In the case of 'Smog Monster,' the dubbing was done by American Film International. I can only guess that they spent time re-writing the translated Japanese dialogue into more casual English. They also seemed willing to spend money on talented voice actors who didn't settle for an 'OK' job. However, Toho (I'm guessing), thought they could do better. The new dubbing is probably a direct translation of the original Japanese script, not adjusted for casual differences. Also, the dubbing feels like people yelling into a microphone because the suits probably didn't care to spend a lot of time on it. (You'll take it and you'll like it!)

I'm guessing that's what happened with the anime 'Aladdin' film. The original English dub was likely done by an American or Canadian company who adjusted the dialogue, making it sound more natural. However, the anime company probably didn't like the changes, and so commissioned a more direct (and less expensive) dubbing for a later release. Again, this is just my theory.

So, if you can find this one, (preferably with the original dub), you are definitely lucky as this is a worthy and well-done interpretation of the tale.

Backthrow said...

Here's the first part of a comprehensive guide to every full-length animated feature film that played in general release in U.S. theaters, starting from Disney's Snow White in 1937 to present (and beyond), not counting stuff that went directly to TV.

Personally, I've always been partial to the early anime feature, ALAKAZAM THE GREAT (1960, the dubbed US-release version currently streams on Netflix), which is a lot more Disney-esque than what you'd normally think of as anime, and used to run on local TV, once in awhile, back in the 1970s.

Rustbelt said...

And tryanmax, I haven't seen the animated 'Lord of the Rings,' but I have seen the animated 'Hobbit.' (I was introduced to it by my roommates during my stint as a college program cast member at WDW. Let's just say, they were fans and I basically ended up taking Tolkien 101 through 303.) Easily better than the movies, (my brother dragged me kicking and screaming to the second one). The only worthwhile comparison, IMO, is Gollum. Andy Serkis is wonderfully vile and original. However, Brother Theodore's voice in the animated version is like nothing I've heard in any other animated film. More subdued, more pathetic, but with an air of danger and malice lurking underneath.

On 'The prince of Egypt'... well, for me, it shows the highs and lows that Dreamworks is capable of.

The highs: As KRS noted, portraying a loving relationship between Moses and Rameses that is torn apart as Moses struggles to obey God's will is excellent drama. And it's played well, showing the opposite feelings both endure as it all falls apart.
Also, some of the songs- particularly 'the Plagues'- set the tone and tell parts of the story really well. And Ralph Fiennes is just great as Rameses.

The lows: 1) The animation, IMO, is uninspiring. It looks like every other non-Pixar, ;post- 'lion King' 90's film (Disney and non-Disney). Just draw lines on a computer and then use the 'Fill' brush. (I tend to refer to this as 'Million Dollar Mario Paint for the Super Nintendo.") Dreamworks established no trademark art style for this film.
2) The use of celebrities (who can't voice act) for the characters. I've written at length about this before, so I'll restrain myself. Let's just say that when I can easily recognize Martin Short, Steve Martin, Sandra Bullock, Patrick Stewart, and Val Kilmer, I'm instantly taken out of the movie.
3) "Anything you can do, we can do better!" Just as 'Shrek' is a Disney parody, this is a remake of the 'Ten Commandments.' Yes, I know, both are based on the Book of Exodus. However, I can't get it out of my head that the filmmakers approached this with the idea of, "whatever DeMille and Heston did before, we'll do the opposite here." Then again, this may be bias. For me, TTC is an epic movie, an EVENT movie that you anticipate and can't wait to see when it finally comes on.* You want it to be a special viewing. I just don't get that from 'Prince.'
But to build on this point, Dreamworks has yet to create their Mickey Mouse/Bugs Bunny/Superman/etc. Most of their films have been- again, IMO- lackluster follow-the-leader efforts with flat celebrity voicework that they heavily advertise, but ultimately fails to sell tickets. A parody and a remake don't work for me as company mascots.

*-I would only consider 'Wizard of Oz' and 'Gone With the Wind' as comparable in this category.

Backthrow said...


Actually, the dubbing thing with GODZILLA VS. THE SMOG MONSTER is nearly as you theorize, except that the not-as-good dub was done before the AIP dub. Toho (and other Japanese studios) would make their monster movies, and immediately produce their own 'international' English dub for all English-speaking territories, whoever they might license to. The same dubbing house(s) they used would also badly-dub kung fu movies from Hong Kong, and you can hear the same English voices in both.

When AIP would import some of the Toho movies, they balked at these sub-standard 'international' dubs Toho provided, and made their own, new dubs with better voice actors, as you've said, since they already did a lot of that when importing a lot of European films in the 1960s. These better dubs were usually from Titra Sound Studios, who dubbed SPEED RACER, among a billion other things for the U.S. market.

In recent years, the rights to a lot of the Toho films that AIP imported have lapsed, so Toho has been able to license them to other U.S. companies. The original Titra dub tracks were either destroyed, or are legally separate entities (so can't be used), so Toho provides the current licensee with their old, substandard 'international' dubs, which are not what we remembered growing up watching them in the 1960s-1980s. That's also why 'VS. THE SMOG MONSTER' is now titled 'VS. HEDORAH' on-screen, and why the singer in the credits of that movie sings the theme tune in Japanese, rather than the English 'Save the Earth' lyrics.

Rustbelt said...

Backthrow, I stand corrected. Thanks for the info.

Still, it stinks when you realize that A) dubbing doesn't have to suck, but B) the company that owns the film seemingly doesn't care to put in the effort to make the dubbing good. Looks like I'll be sticking with my ancient VHS copy.

tryanmax said...

TJed, I have a lot of respect for Bluth as well. He had the audacity to say what everybody was thinking, that Disney had gone down the crapper by the late-70s. Unfortunately, he was more artist than businessman (not that he was a terrible businessman) which is why we don't have a Bluth studios today.

I know you're always wary in your film picks, but I think The Iron Giant is well worth anyone's time.

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, I'm going to throw out another one that I really really don't like, but which seems to have some cache in terms of toon credibility -- Wizards (1977). That's kind of a post-apocalypse cartoon that mixes Dungeons and Dragons with images of Hitler and Nazi soldiers and does some rotoscoping. The whole thing is pretty far left and pretty lousy, but it has become a cult hit.

tryanmax said...

Rustbelt, believe it or not, I have seen that anime version of Aladdin, though I have no idea which dub I heard. There was a lot of similar anime floating around through much of the 80s, so I can't say this left a particular impression on me. BTW, the word "genie" means "slave" so that might explain the lack of reference through translation.

tryanmax said...

Backthrow, that’s a handy guide. I've poured over it myself I don't know how many times.
I've seen Alakazam the Great a couple of times. Once recently, in fact. My deepest impression was how varied the animation quality was. At times, it was as lush and fluid as anything from the Disney golden age, at others, it was struggling to keep up with Speed Racer values. I'd like to know more about its production history but can't find much.

tryanmax said...

Andrew, Agreed about Wizards. I've seen bits and pieces but I won't say for certain that I've seen the whole thing. Honestly, I struggled to include anything from the 70s. It wasn't a good era for animation, and before Jackson's LOTR, I would've left that off, too. I tried really hard to pick influential toons from outside my own lifespan, but before the '80s, it was pretty much Disney or bust.

KRS said...

Rustbelt - I'll tip my hat to some of your critique of Prince of Egypt, but I'd have to agree to disagree on the animation. Although the extra long noses threw me a bit at first, once I got past it, I found it inspired. I believe the plainness of the the feature animation was intentional to draw a link between it and Egyptian hieroglyphs - in Moses' dream sequence his nightmare is an inspired animated hieroglyph of his mother dodging the soldiers and casting him adrift. The parting of the Red Sea scene and passage was cool and creepy at the same time, particularly with lightning silhouetting the whale swimming behind the wall of water.

I concur on the practice of using well known actors who are inexperienced in voicing characters. But it's not going away anytime soon and I've decided to make my peace with it (I confess, I half expected to hear Seti suddenly bark, "Make it so!").

On the bright side, I thought Michelle Pfeiffer (with Sally Dworsky) sang a far more moving version of "When You Believe" than Whitney Houstan and Mariah Carey, who absolutely murdered the song. What is it with pop stars breathing into the mic?

As to comparing the movie with Heston's, I think that's a little unfair because these movies are trying to be different things. I think PoE is deliberately eschewing the epic presentation in order to bring the story into a more intimate space with the audience. That's in keeping with creating the love between the brothers, Moses taking Tzipporah to Egypt, shortening the film time of the plagues, etc.

Anonymous said...

The Lego Movie!!! Fun, humor, randomness & inconsistency, all with a purpose! ;)

Iron Giant, for sure.

I've only seen a few of Miyazaki's films (Ponyo & Spirited Away), but I couldn't get into them too much. Visually stunning & creative masterpieces to be sure, but I couldn't suspend my disbelief enough to accept the incompetence of the adults and the maturity(?--can't think of a better term) of the children. Maybe it's a culture gap or something gets lost in the translation.

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