The year of 2019 certainly had a lot in store for lovers of everything animated. Disney’s cycle of remakes and new instalments are front running the line up with the highly anticipated CGI The Lion King remake hitting cinemas on July 19th. This is coming after DreamWorks released a third instalment of the How to Train Your Dragon franchise The Hidden World and last but not least the year will be closed nicely by the follow up to global phenomenon Frozen coming in November. With the apparent world domination held by Disney, Pixar and DreamWorks it’s easy to lose sight of the breadth of animation available to you, so this list will compile some of the best independent animated features out there. From fantasy worlds to darker themes closer to home, independent animation can often go where Disney does not, giving us all the more reason to watch them!
Mary and Max (2009)
The first on the list is quirky claymation from Australian director Adam Elliot with this heartwarming story of unlikely friendship in Mary and Max (2009). His distinct style has made him well known in the world of independent animated film, showcased in his stop motion shorts and features which often tackle important but hard hitting topics such as disability and mental health.
Mary and Max tells the story of two unlikely friends, brought together in the strangest of circumstances. Mary lives in suburban Australia with her best, and only friend, Ethel the rooster. She longs for friendship, taking matters into her own hands by picking a name and address from the Yellow Pages and sending off a letter introducing herself enclosed with a chocolate bar as a token of good will. The letter makes its way to Max Harowitz, a 44 year old Jewish man living alone in New York. Max suffers from anxiety and Asperger’s and as the friendship blossoms between the unlikely pair we see them grow together through their letters, Mary reaching adulthood and Max coming to terms with his mental health.
It’s almost impossible not to empathise with Elliot’s animated miniatures, their story is equally as heart warming as it is tear jerking. It is the perfect example of the ability of animation to visually display a characters internal struggle, making it an independent animated must watch.
Waltz with Bashir (2008)
Next on the list is an independently animated film in a very specific style, seen in Ari Folman’s Waltz with Bashir (2008). The director decided to rewrite the rules of animation by producing the film mostly in Flash software. Folman had the scenes filmed in live action to retain elements of realism and detail, before key frames were created and then manipulated in a distinctive cut out style. If you want more technical details on the making of Waltz with Bashir from the director himself, click here.
The result is an arty exploration of the notion of memory, telling the stories of Israeli soldiers who invaded Lebanon in the conflict of 1982. It’s easy to forget that Waltz with Bashir is actually a documentary, formed through Folman’s own desire to fill missing gaps of his recollection of the beaches of Lebanon. Folman embarks on a journey to interview his fellow soldiers bringing life to their stories and experiences as he goes. The surrealist rendering of the stories told make Waltz with Bashir a poignant and unforgettable watch, bringing new meaning to the definition of both animation techniques and documentary alike.
Adapted from the novel by Marjane Satrapi this animation brings movement to the comic style established in her book Persepolis. The film not only retains the title but stays true to the events and narration established by Satrapi as she tells the story of her coming of age living in Iran during the Islamic revolution. The author and now director provides insights to her experiences as the society around her shifted into religious regime, forcing her to make the tough decision to leave her family behind and move to Vienna.
The animation is as much about a girl growing into a woman as it is about Saptrapi’s experience of war. Her authorial voice is powerful and demanding of the viewer, whilst still finding time for light hearted comedy and heart wrenching moments any teen could relate too. The comic book style of animated adaptation is one that grounds the story into distinct chapters of her life as she tackles her own intellect, her emerging sexuality and troubles with boys, and negotiates her place in the world as someone who has seen more than most people ever will. Alike Waltz with Bashir, Persepolis is able to provide a glimpse, be it subjective, into what life is like in the midst of war. Inviting the audience to experience some of the darkest moments in humanity through a mode that people don’t typically shy away from, animation.
It wouldn’t be a list of independent animated greats without some anime. To the untrained eye one could see the anime market as saturated by the infamous Studio Ghibli and, as hard as it is not to watch Spirited Away (2001) for the hundredth time, there is more Japanese animation waiting to be discovered. One of them being Paprika (2006), produced by Japanese company Madhouse, which occurs in a time where scientists have created a machine allowing people to watch and record their dreams. When the machine falls into the wrong hands it’s up to young psychiatrist Chiba to enter the dreamworld and assume her alter ego Paprika in order to reestablish the boundaries between fantasy and reality.
Many have referred to Paprika as the first Inception (2010), both films exploring the nature of dreams and offering a surrealist style, there certainly are precise comparisons between the two (click here for an interesting side by side analysis) but I’ll leave it to you to decide if Nolan took a little too much from the anime original. On its own, Paprika is an outstanding use of the freedom of independent animation to showcase the limitless possibilities available to film makers. Animating a fantastical world with exciting characters and mind bending visuals, Paprika is not to be missed.
The Secret of Kells (2009)
Remaining firmly in the realm of fantasy the last film on the list is independent animated gem The Secret of Kells (2009) produced by Cartoon Saloon. The Irish animation company consistently produces Academy Award nominees, with later films Song of the Sea (2014) and The Breadwinner (2017), it’s not hard to see why when you enter their world of dreamy Irish folklore. The Secret of Kells follows Brendan, a young boy living the Abbey of Kells, a remote colony deep in the Irish woods. As villagers scramble to prepare the colony from a barbarian attack it is clear that danger is impending, but Brendan has other things on his mind. He works as an apprentice in the scriptorium of the monastery and is enchanted by a master illuminator who brings with him a magical book. Soon both Brendan and his white cat Pangur are set on a quest outside the fortified walls of Kells to retrieve necessary items for the completion of the book.
The juxtaposition between dreamy forest landscapes and red stained battle scenes make the animation visually exciting, paired with the large eyes of the characters which draw you in. As animations often do, the story focuses on encouraging Brendan to follow his heart and revel in his natural talents as the master illuminator takes him under his wing. The combination of great story situated in rich history and folklore with breathtaking animation makes The Secret of Kells an enlightening experience.