In recent years, a lot of animated movies have been formulaic and underwhelming, but 2012 brought us the variety and quality that has been missing in the genre for a while. Sure, Disney brought back Beauty and the Beast, Finding Nemo, and Monsters Inc. in 3D, and things like Madagascar 3 still exist, but there were enough new releases that the obvious money-grabs were not so odious. Plus, Finding Nemo in 3D was gorgeous, so shut up.
Animation is always a gamble, since impressive technique can go unnoticed due to a terrible story, and great writing is often watered down to appeal to more to a young audience than to the parents that accompany them. 2012 seemed to understand the dearth of high-quality animated films out there, and it really delivered. In a year that brought us a black-and-white movie about a dead dog, a princess movie without a prince, and three full-length stop motion films, which ones rose above the rest?
Honorable mention: The Pirates! Band of Misfits
I love Aardman films. Really, I do. Stop motion is one of my favorite animation techniques, and Aardman does it so well. Pirates! is a very cute movie, and the animation is great. When it came to making this list, however, it took a while to remember I'd seen it at all. The plot is a bit of a jumble, and actually seeing the movie doesn't feel too different from just watching the trailer. Still, it's a lot of fun, and well worth watching for the chuckles and the art style.
Read our review of The Pirates! Band of Misfitshere.
5. The Secret World of Arrietty
Studio Ghibli's first film in a couple of years does not disappoint. Despite some odd voice acting and problems with audio levels, the movie is a big, fun adventure in a tiny, dangerous world. The characters are quirky and interesting, as one might have come to expect from this company, and the world they inhabit feels well-developed and just as big as its residents seem to find it. The animation is absolutely gorgeous, and a beautiful return to traditional 2D.
Read our review of The Secret World of Arrietty here.
At a glance, ParaNorman is an amalgamation of successful money-grabs rolled into one movie. Kid that doesn't fit in? Check. Animation? Check. Zombies? Check. Directly following the success of Coraline, it would have a decent crowd right away. I had my reservations, but the result ended up being so much better than I could have hoped. The story has the same video game-y feel that Coraline gave, from the different environments to the final boss, and a similar sense of horror that's hard to find in an animated film. And the stop motion! Oh man, the stop motion. Stunning, smooth animation on intricate figures with detailed backgrounds. The only thing holding this movie back so far on this list is that section in the middle where Norman has to monologue. Monologuing is such a mood-killer.
Speaking of movies with a video game-y feel to them, Wreck-It Ralph was another movie I was pleasantly surprised by. Cinematic odes to video games can go very poorly, and Sarah Silverman's voice sounds like nails on a chalkboard to me, but none of that mattered in the end. There's a level of heart in the movie beyond just the gamer nostalgia. Digital animation is so common-place that it almost feels detrimental to an otherwise great animated film, but Ralph escapes that feeling entirely. The real magic is in the little details, from the different ways the characters move to the “Aerith lives” graffitti on the walls of Game Central Station. Even Sarah Silverman couldn't ruin the fun of this movie for me.
Seriously, I don't know how three different companies released feature-length stop motion films this year, but I'm pretty sure it means that there is a God and he's trying to get in my pants.
Frankenweenie was one of those movies I felt had no business being remade, and was adamantly opposed to...until I saw the trailer. Stop motion! Black and white! Burton's original style before he started casting Johnny Depp in everything! Still, it was hard not to be cynical. How could a short film about accepting death possibly reach a wide audience, especially such a young one, without being stripped and simplified?
What a joy it was to discover that it was, indeed, possible. Frankenweenie delivered the same story, expanded to fit its original intent, with fantastic models and sets that used just enough technology to help the puppets defy gravity in the way they needed to. Best of all, it didn't shy away from the subject matter, and packed an emotional punch without feeling manipulative.
Oh, Brave. One of the original inspirations for the Princess Review series was noting the lack of strong female characters in both Disney films and princess movies in general. Why couldn't there be a woman who could live life without a man? Why did every heroine need to be rescued and get married? My most anticipated film of 2012 had some lofty goals to meet, and it did not disappoint in the least.
It feels like Brave took all the worst aspects of movies aimed at children and said, "Nope, not doing that." Merida is a real person, selfish and flawed, and her journey leads her to self-improvement and familial appreciation. The other characters have personal development and are not solely there to make the main character look better. The comic relief is actually comedic and not detrimental to the rest of the movie. The movie remains grounded in its time period and does not throw in pop culture references for a cheap laugh.
It's more than just avoiding mistakes, of course. Brave takes a goal to have a strong female lead and accomplishes it, and does so without sacrificing entertainment or quality in the name of reaching a wider audience. The world is beautiful and the character style fits in well, and all of that is just a cherry on top of the rest of the experience.