Crash Course in Visually Stunning Animated Films?
February 5, 2014 9:17 AM   Subscribe

I am looking for visually stunning, innovative, creative animated films, from any point in the history of the medium. They can be shorts or features, funny or serious, conventional or experimental, popular or obscure. Assume a general familiarity with Disney and Warner Bros., but I'm otherwise brand new to animation.

Never having paid animation much attention, I've recently become enamored with the classic Warner Brothers cartoons. I love the visual density of these cartoons, and the way they embrace the medium's freedom to bend, warp, and exaggerate physical space.

I'm hungry for more. I'm just as interested in films that are funny/light as I am in films that are serious/dark. I would love to expose myself to popular stuff I may have missed, as well as avant garde or experimental animation.

Note to help narrow down suggestions: I am specifically looking for animated films that use the medium in an innovative way. They do not need to resemble Looney Tunes at all, but I would prefer suggestions that take full advantage of the medium's flexibility. I wouldn't be interested in something like the Simpsons, despite its being both animated and very good, because so much of its humor is verbal, not visual.

Thank you!
posted by scarylarry to Media & Arts (68 answers total) 82 users marked this as a favorite
posted by nerdfish at 9:18 AM on February 5, 2014 [18 favorites]

You will enjoy The Secret of Kells!
posted by bewilderbeast at 9:23 AM on February 5, 2014 [9 favorites]

Best answer: A great place to start is the work of Hayao Miyazaki. Specifically, I would have you start with Spirited Away, which is IMO his masterpiece, and goes to some very visually unusual places.

Ebert has this to say about "Spirited Away," BTW:

Animation is a painstaking process, and there is a tendency to simplify its visual elements. Miyazaki, in contrast, offers complexity. His backgrounds are rich in detail, his canvas embraces space liberally, and it is all drawn with meticulous attention.

Anime is a pretty deep rabbit-hole, but if you're looking for things that stand out visually, I have two specific recommendations: A series called Haibane Renmei, and everything by the late Satoshi Kon.

On a very different tip - try exploring the animation archives of the National Film Board of Canada. Personal favorites include "The Big Snit," "The Sweater," "The Log-Driver's Waltz," but they're all pretty much amazing.
posted by jbickers at 9:25 AM on February 5, 2014 [6 favorites]

Best answer: One more I forgot to mention: The TV series Samurai Jack did some truly breathtaking things, both visually and from a storytelling perspective. The whole show recently got added to Netflix Instant.
posted by jbickers at 9:29 AM on February 5, 2014 [7 favorites]

Best answer: Summer Wars (Which is also a really excellent film, generally)

Wolf Children (Same director)

The Croods (Some visually stunning sequences and great character animation, but pretty awful in a lot of respects.)
posted by Narrative Priorities at 9:31 AM on February 5, 2014

Quay Brothers
posted by davebush at 9:31 AM on February 5, 2014 [2 favorites]

There is a Japanese movie called Aurora that is amazing and that is closer to the beginning of CGI.

Reboot was the first fully CGI television show. It is a kids show but it is awesome if you are a geek and I remember it fondly from my childhood.
posted by AlexiaSky at 9:34 AM on February 5, 2014

A Scanner Darkly is all done with rotoscoping, which is live action and animation's bastard love child. Excellent film, too. Robert Downey Jr is really good in it.
posted by flabdablet at 9:34 AM on February 5, 2014

Best answer: As for using the form to its utmost, don't forget to appreciate early Disney's use of multiplane animation. Bambi.

For style, some standouts from Disney are Donald in Mathmagic Land, Toot Whistle, Plunk and Boom, and Gerald McBoingBoing from UPA. These are "cartoon modern," and if that aesthetic gets your engine revving, there is more where that came from.

I've posted Animated Minds on the blue here before. I'll also recommend The Triplets of Belleville, and if rotoshop is ok, (it's pretty ok with me to say the least), A Scanner Darkly, and certainly, definitely, Waltz with Bashir. The Congress, coming this year from Ari Folman, is going to be phenomenal.

Though it's unexpected, I firmly believe that Space Ghost: Coast to Coast uses animation in incomparable ways.

Fleischer's Out of the Inkwell series, and Song CarTunes are pretty historically important for their experimentation with the medium's affordances.

If stop motion counts, the experience of seeing Coraline in 3D completely justifies the technology. Dunno how you'd manage that now, but I guess you could just watch it 2d and pretend the textures and sense of inhabiting space were 500% awesomerer.
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 9:35 AM on February 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Just to expand on Satoshi Kon, Paprika might be a good place to start. It's about as visually nutballs as he gets.

For something in a different direction, check out Bill Plympton (The Tune etc). Handcrafted visual treats.

And it's worth tracking down the fan "Recobbled" print of Richard Williams' infamous Thief and the Cobbler... So much amazing animation.
posted by selfnoise at 9:35 AM on February 5, 2014

Triplets of Belleville
posted by phunniemee at 9:35 AM on February 5, 2014 [5 favorites]

Windsor McKay.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 9:37 AM on February 5, 2014 [2 favorites]

Best answer: There's also, of course, ALL of experimental animation! John Whitney
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 9:39 AM on February 5, 2014

Best answer: Some shorts:


The TV Show

White Winter Trees (a music video)

Thought of You (and other animation by the same artist)
posted by Narrative Priorities at 9:41 AM on February 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

Screen Play (contains nudity, violence, gore)
posted by plinth at 9:43 AM on February 5, 2014

I'd also recommend Paprika and Summer Wars (especially Summer Wars.)

I also like Alexander Petrov's The Old Man and the Sea. Each frame is hand painted.
posted by sevenless at 9:46 AM on February 5, 2014

Best answer: Studio 4C's Genius Party is nothing but experimentation. Different shorts in radically different styles. They also did the movie Tekkon Kinkreet.

Satoshi Kon films. The link is to the Paprika Trailer but it's hard to go wrong with his surreal vision.

Memories is three scifi shorts.

Pink Floyd The Wall's animation is mind blowing.

The Thief and The Cobbler This film's been highly edited. Youtube may be your best friend here.

Triplets of Belleville

A Cat in Paris


GOBELINS L'Ecole D'Image. GOBELINS on youtube. The shorts that come out of that school!
posted by SometimesChartreuse at 9:56 AM on February 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: These suggestions are amazing, and totally what I am looking for. Exclamation points are shooting out of the top of my head! Please keep 'em coming!
posted by scarylarry at 9:58 AM on February 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Robert Breer. See them projected from film some day, if you can!
posted by bubukaba at 9:59 AM on February 5, 2014

Best answer: Speaking of hand-painted animation, a lot of Len Lye's oeuvre is available on YouTube.
Free Radicals
A Colour Box
Swinging the Lambeth Walk
posted by yoink at 10:00 AM on February 5, 2014

The Incredibles.
posted by entropone at 10:00 AM on February 5, 2014

Best answer: Frankly, I hated Triplets of Belleville, but that was more of a taste issue than a matter of skill.

So, a website you might like to check out is Cartoon Brew, which highlights new and old stuff frequently and has lots of industry people who hang out there and make recommendations/gripe about each other's recommendations.

The film that came before A Scanner Darkly was Richard Linklater's Waking Life, and used a similar style and was, I thought, a better film overall.

Animation is a huge field; it's difficult to know what to recommend to someone trying to get their feet wet. You mostly just need to watch a lot of it and get a feel for what you like/what artists/studios you want to see more of. Some people prefer hand-drawn or CGI or stop-motion. There's a guy on Tumblr called "traceloops" who is doing some interesting stuff with rotoscope/stop motion ideas; there's Cyriak (featured on the blue and on Cartoon Brew) who uses GIFs in weird and sometimes disturbing ways. There's a huge catalog of early animation, much of it mediocre, some of it amazing. Not just Disney and Warner Brothers but Fleischman Superman series.

And then there's the 60s-now, which covers everything from psychedelic experiments to the beginning of CGI.

The BrewTV section of Cartoon Brew is a good place to start and watch.

I would go to a festival, if you get a chance, and expose yourself to the variety that is out there.
posted by emjaybee at 10:02 AM on February 5, 2014

Another vote here for Samurai Jack. It's so beautiful.
posted by royalsong at 10:03 AM on February 5, 2014

Best answer: Al Jarnow. I made an FPP.

John and Faith Hubley. I've been meaning to make an FPP.
posted by hydrophonic at 10:09 AM on February 5, 2014

Azur and Asmar is gorgeous.
posted by Cuke at 10:11 AM on February 5, 2014

Best answer: This may be a weird suggestion, but I've found tons of wonderful, very stunning computer animation shorts by browsing the Ringling School of Art and Design Student Portfolios.
posted by stubbehtail at 10:20 AM on February 5, 2014

Best answer: I've seen most of the animation on this list so far and will just across the board recommend all of it. One I don't see mentioned is Sita Sings The Blues, which I enjoyed a lot.

And in terms of finding your own new things to tell people about, various animated shorts often get put together and sent around on the art-house circuit. I've seen this done with the year's Oscar-nominated shorts, with films funded by the Canadian film board, or with shorts that someone or other has assembled (sorry for the vagueness there but I've seen a few of these.) They're usually a great way of bending your mind towards 5-10 totally different ways of viewing the world over the course of 2 hours. In my small town I tend to run across a couple of these every year and always make an effort to go see them.
posted by tchemgrrl at 10:23 AM on February 5, 2014

Best answer: A lot of great stuff has been mentioned, but I'll add, on the more experimental side:

Mona Lisa Descending a Staircase

Father and Daughter



Two Sisters

When The Day Breaks

In general I would check out shorts over features especially for experimental stuff; A lot of shorts feature animation techniques that would be cost-prohibitive to do in a 90-minute+ form. Lists of past Oscar nominees are a great place to start, as is Canada's National Film Board site.
posted by matcha action at 10:24 AM on February 5, 2014

Nthing all the Miyazaki, Mamoru Hosoda, and Satoshi Kon recommendations.

One I haven't seen mentioned yet is Redline
posted by Aznable at 10:25 AM on February 5, 2014

Perfect Blue
posted by cristinacristinacristina at 10:47 AM on February 5, 2014

and though it's not a film, the anime series Cowboy Bebop deserves a nod as well.
posted by cristinacristinacristina at 10:50 AM on February 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

Yellow Submarine?
Kung Fu Panda
Simpsons: El Viaje Misterioso de Nuestro Jomer
WB: Duck Amuck
Pearl Jam: "Do The Evolution"
If stop-motion counts, most Tool videos
More stop-motion: Wallace and Gromit
posted by Huffy Puffy at 10:57 AM on February 5, 2014

Best answer: Lotte Reiniger's, "The Adventures of Prince Achmed" is supposedly the oldest animated feature in existance. I consider it visually stunning. She used paper cut-out technique, but managed to get some very interesting layered and translucent effects. Highly recommended.
posted by spudsilo at 10:59 AM on February 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

No way, no one's mentioned Akira yet?
posted by TrinsicWS at 11:08 AM on February 5, 2014

Best answer: Here's an FPP about the Thief and the Cobbler with video links.
posted by Dixon Ticonderoga at 11:10 AM on February 5, 2014

Best answer: The film that particularly blew my mind when I took an intro to animation course was Free Radicals by Len Lye. He animated the film by scratching directly on the emulsion of the film stock using various implements (saw blades for example.) A totally different and quite striking effect than what we usually think of as animation.

Frank Film by Frank Mouris is an amazing work of collage animation.

Seconding anything by the Brothers Quay.
posted by usonian at 11:19 AM on February 5, 2014

Best answer: Ren & Stimpy was the first cartoon series for decades after WB to exploit the malleability of physical space. There's a strong WB influence.

Nthing the "Recobbled" cut of The Thief and the Cobbler.
Twice Upon a Time is an underrated experimental classic

Make sure your shorts inventory includes these:
- The Dover Boys (WB)
- Swing, You Sinners (Fleischer)
- Snow White (Fleischer)
- Minnie the Moocher (Fleischer)
- The Old Lady and the Pigeons (Sylvain Chomet)

You might also want to look into Ralph Bakshi's films. They're gritty, crude and controversial, but often very inventive.
posted by overeducated_alligator at 11:20 AM on February 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Yuri Norstein! A Hedgehog in the Fog is a good starter. If you want to go down that rabbit hole, The Masters of Russian Animation is a beautiful collection, uneven (has to be, really, it covers so much ground) but skip-aroundable.

Jan Svankmaejer is all stop action, but man, if you like dark...
posted by theweasel at 11:47 AM on February 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: "Allegro non Troppo" is an answer to Disney's "Fantasia". It's lower budget and generally lighter and more humorous, but there are a few stretches of it that are breathtakingly beautiful. (I'm thinking of the cat in the burned out house.)
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 11:59 AM on February 5, 2014

I'm a bit surprised no one has mentioned "Ghost in the Shell". It qualifies as "dystopian", I think, but visually it is truly amazing.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 12:04 PM on February 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

I would include the work of Michel Gondry, "The Science of Sleep" and "Met a Girl" a piece he did for the White Stripes.

Henry Selick, "Coraline" My heart broke the year it lost out for the Oscar to Up.
posted by effluvia at 12:07 PM on February 5, 2014

Also, Peter Greenaway, "Prospero's Books" for example.
posted by effluvia at 12:08 PM on February 5, 2014

Seconding matcha action's recommendation to check out the NFB site. There was some incredible pioneering animation work done under the NFB. Matcha action mentioned Norman McLaren's Neighbours; I'd add Ryan Larkin's Walking and Chris Landreth's Oscar-winning tribute to Larkin, Ryan.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 12:14 PM on February 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

The Cow
posted by j_curiouser at 12:17 PM on February 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: There was a yearly collection of animation released over a period of about 20 years under the title "International Tournée of Animation". They usually ran at colleges and art houses, and a lot of them were released on VHS.

Sadly, they're not in print now, but if you can find someone who owns all or some of them, they'd fit your bill nicely.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 12:40 PM on February 5, 2014

Best answer: Motionographer is a really good site linking to some exceptional animation. Cartoon Brew has a lot of interesting content, but it's also far more industry-based and the discussions can get a little political; Motionographer focuses more on the animation itself.

Some recommendations I haven't seen yet:
- Who Framed Roger Rabbit (talk about innovation in animation)
- The Iron Giant (generally beloved)
- Orgesticulanismus (it takes a while to warm up, but stick with it; the animation starts at around 1:30)
- Periwinkle Around the World (not particularly innovative per se, but it really showcases some of animation's strengths, e.g., great character design, fantastic situations, physical gags with superb timing)
- The Dot and the Line (you may notice some of WB's biggest names in the beginning credits)
- Little Boat
- Skhizein

+1 Studio 4°C (especially Tekkon Kinkreet)

+1 Studio Ghibli (check out their older work, too! noteworthy in Ghibli animation: the amount of attention paid to the smaller things, e.g., characters not getting things right the first time, taking time to settle themselves before doing something, adjusting their clothing, etc.— really fantastic character stuff)

This is a fantastic time to be getting into animation! Technology has really leveled the playing field, and independent artists are doing some amazing things.
posted by brieche at 1:47 PM on February 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I'm a little surprised that I've gotten this far without seeing these suggestions, but here goes:

The Secret of NIMH - Don Bluth's first (and best IMHO) animated feature film. It has gorgeous animation, background work and effects, and feels a lot like some of the older Disney films in aesthetic.

The Iron Giant - This one has a somewhat more stark and stylized style in comparison, but it tends to evoke some of the older Warner Bros. style.
posted by Aleyn at 1:48 PM on February 5, 2014

Best answer: Don Hertzfeldt's work is certainly creative. It is the visual opposite of Studio Ghibli and other beautiful profitable films.
posted by esoterrica at 2:12 PM on February 5, 2014

Best answer: I realized I didn't mention anybody from the last decade:

Nick Cross
Anthony Schepperd
Rebecca Sugar
The Rauch Brothers
posted by overeducated_alligator at 2:35 PM on February 5, 2014

Best answer: Any point in the history of the medium? Then you MUST search out work by Melies, because they are seminal, and you will see Melies references all over the place in modern fanciful moving image work. (That image with the moon crying because of a rocket in his eye? Flying beds among the clouds in the night sky? That's Melies. Scorcese's film Hugo was about him.) Strictly speaking this pioneer of filmmaking wasn't an animator but a storyteller who used every camera trick and visual illusion he could muster and/or invent to spin fantastic narratives.

Also, seconding Jan Svankmejer.

Ladislas Starevich, the Cricket and the Ant, 1911.

Lottie Reiniger, the Cricket and the Ant, 1926.

64 Youtube videos of Lottie Reiniger.

Thirding (or fourthing) looking up Norman Maclaren and the National Film Board of Canada.

There was a great deal of beautiful animation made in Eastern Europe, unfortunately I've no idea how to even begin researching it. Film schools? It's stuff I'm only aware of because British public service television used to show rare and unusual films regularly for a short period of time in the 80s.

Oh and, just for info about the early stages of the development of film, look up the photo sequences of Eadweard Muybridge.
posted by glasseyes at 4:41 PM on February 5, 2014

Check out the stratacut work of David Daniels.
posted by ocherdraco at 5:45 PM on February 5, 2014

Mary and Max, a critically-acclaimed animated movie for adults, fabulously starring the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman.
posted by dean_deen at 7:58 PM on February 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

Speaking of the Oscar-nominated animated shorts, they're probably playing right now in a theater near you. I haven't seen them yet this year, but there's often some delightful fun to be had.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 9:33 PM on February 5, 2014

Best answer: Anime-heavy. Apologies if some of these trailers are poor-quality but they should give you a rough idea of the style of these.

Speaking of Studio 4C: Mind Game. But really, just about anything by them, especially their short film collections like Genius party and Sweat Punch.

Dead Leaves.


Aku no Hana.

Gainax is another visually adventurous studio, perhaps most notably in FLCL.




Mononoke (different from Princess Mononoke).



Waking Life.

Heavy Metal.

The Last Unicorn.

Soviet-era Russian animation in general is super fascinating and inventive. This channel is a good a place as any to start.

Bit of an outlier, but I like the punky, lo-rent style of Myles Langlois.

Bee and Puppycat, and Cartoon Hangover's stuff in general.

Carson Mell's stuff.
posted by Drexen at 5:48 AM on February 6, 2014

Best answer: Oh yeah, Akira if you haven't watched it. And if Cowboy Bebop interests you then Samurai Champloo, by the same guy, probably will.

Also I forgot Tatami Galaxy.

In general there's a lot of very well-produced and prettily-strange anime coming out recently -- stuff along the lines of Mwaru Penguindrum -- that is interesting from an animation/art perspective but doesn't really (IMHO) have much to back it up with, which to me lessens the interestingness of the visuals.. but YMMV, for sure.
posted by Drexen at 5:58 AM on February 6, 2014

+1 on the Kaiba (2008)
Invader Zim
posted by yoHighness at 6:28 AM on February 6, 2014

Glad Secret of Kells was mentioned early on: I love that thing.

Bill Plympton had a series of crazy shorts that he called Plymptoons, and it looks like they're on the web now at
posted by wenestvedt at 8:47 AM on February 6, 2014

My immediate response - the work of Hayao Mikazaki and the rest of Studio Ghibli - was in the first comment, and has been mentioned multiple times.

I would just add that Miyazaki's most recent film, The Wind Rises (still on the festival circuit in North America, I believe) is stunning - really a crown to a pretty awesome career. I'd actually suggest watching his several flight themed films (Nausicaa, Castle in the Sky, Porco Rosso) and then The Wind Rises to see how his work (and obsession with flight) has developed.

I would also strongly suggest checking out some of the lesser known Studio Ghibli films, specifically those directed by Isao Takahata. They don't tend to be as visually stunning as Miyazaki's, but are wonderful in their own way. Takahata directed the critically acclaimed The Grave of the Fireflies and the charming nostalgia movie Only Yesterday - I just recently got to see My Neighbours the Yamadas for the first time, and I was blown away by the charm and humour, and also the incredible realism of the movement and manner of characters who are (in their design) otherwise cartoonish. It's also very different from Miyazaki's work, and a great example of simple but still sophisticated animation.
posted by jb at 9:29 AM on February 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I'm surprised nobody has mentioned Batman: The Animated Series yet. That show was groundbreaking in its own way -- they drew much of it on black paper rather than white to underscore the dark, shadowy nature of Gotham. Here's an in-depth discussion of the sixty-second intro to the show that gets into the economy of visual storytelling going in here.
posted by gauche at 9:50 AM on February 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'd suggest taking a look at the still-currently airing "Adventure Time" series. Lots of amusing character and background design. One noteworthy thing about it that doesn't often get remarked up is that the show's creator, Pendleton Ward, has said that he enjoys the effect of havng individual storyboard artists' various idiosynrasies being allowed to make it through to the finished it's not unusually to have characters in the show turn out very slightly "off-model". On purpose.
posted by Ipsifendus at 10:15 AM on February 6, 2014

Maybe not so visually stunning, but here's Heather McAdams' Scratchman.
posted by hydrophonic at 12:30 PM on February 6, 2014

Henry Selick, "Coraline" My heart broke the year it lost out for the Oscar to Up.

Man, that was an amazing year for animation. The other movies up for the Oscar included Fantastic Mr. Fox and the aforementioned Secret of Kells. Also out that year were Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs and the insane and wonderful Town Called Panic.
If you like Coraline, also check out ParaNorman.
If you want good, lesser known Disney, check out Lilo and Stitch. Also, all of the Winnie the Pooh movies (including most of the direct to DVD ones) are super fun, and terrifically animated.
posted by cottoncandybeard at 4:59 PM on February 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

Coraline is wonderful -- and the making of videos are very impressive. So much effort went into creating that very believable world.

I've actually got a DVD which is a double bill of Coraline and the film 9, which is also very good animation. I love comparing the two: one, a stop motion film which is so smoothly made I wondered at first if it it had been computer animated (Coraline), and the other (9) a computer animated film so meticulous in its depiction of fabrics and objects and texture that I wondered if it might be stop motion.
posted by jb at 9:28 PM on February 6, 2014

Seconding FLCL. I watched all the episodes for the first time last night; when the robot ascends to heaven in the second episode, I gasped. The series throws around its symbols and imagery so effortlessly. And yet it's still a delight to watch. How did they do that?

The show itself is dense though, so I recommend using Hayden Childs' exegeses slash reviews of each episode as a guide. They are not only well-written, but the fans of the show know how to carry a good conversation in the article comments.

God, what a great show.
posted by shadytrees at 4:00 PM on February 8, 2014 [2 favorites]

Oktapodi from the Gobelins studio is one of my personal faves.
posted by ikahime at 2:11 PM on February 9, 2014

Oh yeah, Akira if you haven't watched it.

Also Katsuhiro Otomo's Steamboy, which like Akira went wildly over-budget with the level of detail in its old-school cell animation. It's not as good as his earlier work, but much of the design and animation is breathtaking (trailer here).
posted by permafrost at 4:21 AM on February 12, 2014

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