Book Review: 100 Animated Feature Films

Andrew Osmond’s 100 Animated Feature Films is the latest in the BFI’s ongoing series of Screen Guides. Initialised in 2004, the twelve books published so far have been an intriguing bunch. The remit is simple but effective: the given author or editor selects 100 titles from a particular genre (the Western, film noir), subgenre (anime, road movies) or geographically-specific niche (European horror films, Bollywood, British documentaries). Their choices then serve as an introduction, a primer, a viewing list and a potted history of their chosen theme, with each selection getting its own write-up detailing plot points, historical context, cultural impact, reason for inclusion, etc. Understandably 100 titles allows for quite some scope - and so oftentimes we’ll find the cult and the classic rubbing shoulders with the obscure and, occasionally, the contentious. Moreover this blend allows the books to extend the readership beyond the beginner to a much wider audience. Even those well versed on a particular topic or theme can gain plenty of enjoyment from the author’s particular take (Philip Brophy’s two books, 100 Anime and 100 Modern Soundtracks, have easily been the most idiosyncratic to date), not mention discovering what has, and has not, been included. As Patrick Russell wrote in his introduction to 100 British Documentaries: “Watch them, enjoy - and make up your own mind. Then get to work on your own list.” As you would expect, many of these factors apply to 100 Animated Feature Films.

The choice of Osmond as author is a good one, as has been the case with many of the Screen Guides to date. As with Russell and 100 British Documentaries, or Rachel Dwyer and 100 Bollywood, or Ed Buscombe and 100 Westerns, Osmond is currently one of the major writers on his chosen topic. His contributions extend from Empire magazine to Sight & Sound demonstrating his keen interest in both mainstream and more arthouse fare. Indeed, it is this mix which comes through in 100 Animated Feature Films: Lotte Reiniger, Ralph Bakshi and Jan Svankmajer, to name but a few, all figure alongside the more populist works of Disney, DreamWorks and Pixar, with Japanese animation getting its fair share of consideration too.

Of course, Osmond - as all of the Screen Guide authors have done - lays down his own criteria in his introduction. Thus his selection is taken from an Anglophone perspective, the idea being that each of his choices should be easily available to his readers, most prominently through DVDs available in their own country or another region. Understandably this isn’t always the case - his earliest selection, Quirini Cristiani’s El Apostal from 1917, considered to be the first feature-length animation, is lost - but for the most part titles shouldn’t be too difficult to track down. Furthermore, Osmond is keen to see the history of full-length animation through the massive spectre of Disney. It is the man and his studio, after all, who many think of first when considering such features (notable, for example, through the popular misconception that Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was the film that started it all) and so 100 Animated Feature Films repeatedly sees its choices as those being influenced by or reacting against Walt. The introduction takes us through early Disney, the effect of World War II on the studio’s fortunes and the resultant commercial decline, the death of its founder, the ‘dark ages’ prior to the rejuvenation kick-started by The Little Mermaid and the success story of Pixar - a decades-spanning thread onto which many others of the non-Disney selections connect. There are those animators, such as Tim Burton, Don Bluth and Brad Bird, who “dropped out” and went their own way. There are also those such as Ralph Bakshi who would sneak in assorted jibes directed towards the House of Mouse in their features (the white supremacists in Fritz the Cat resemble Mickey and Donald). Plus there are those such as Dallas Bower’s and Lou Bunin’s Alice in Wonderland which served as direct rivals and, in this instant, ended up in court (Disney lost). Not that it’s all bad news: Osmond also notes how the studio was instrumental in brining the works of Studio Ghibli to a Western audience - and, understandably, their output is also heavily represented throughout the book.

Indeed, a quick glance at the full list on the back cover reveals a high total for both Disney and Ghibli productions. (It should be mentioned here that 100 Animated Feature Films is being published solely as a hardback edition, no doubt in a bid to compete in the lucrative Christmas gifts market; the previous paperback Screen Guides simply didn’t have space to mention each of their respective choices on the back.) However, any misgivings that the book is providing a misbalanced account the animated feature is swiftly put aside by other governing factors. From a personal standpoint I’ll reveal that - as someone who would consider themselves reasonably well-versed in the history of animated film - I’ve seen only 70% of the selections, and there were nine or ten of which I’d never previously heard. So clearly Osmond isn’t just going for the mainstream and the big-hitters. More importantly, the various Disney and Ghibli inclusions each justifies their place. Disney, in particular, has its fascinating history and the ups and downs in its fortunes meaning that just a handful of titles could never do justice to such variety and a multitude of key works (Cinderella is a different beast from The Jungle Book is a different beast from The Hunchback of Notre Dame and so on…). Ghibli on the other hand has such high standards that it would simply appear wrong not to cherry pick heavily from the various highlights. Similarly, the vast array of more recent works - and I’m referring here to animation as a whole, not simply Disney and Ghibli - amongst the selections just goes to show both the current groundswell we are having and the fact that this is happening on an international level. Once again any perceived misbalances are deceptive.

But of course, coming up with the 100 is only part of the job. Were this simply a list and no more, then surely it would be easier to do a Google search rather than part with your hard-earned cash. Indeed, the meat of 100 Animated Feature Films is provided by what Osmond has to say about each of its entries. Whilst each selection is bound to a write-up of no more than a few hundred words (as was the case in previous Screen Guides), he is able to encompass many of the requisite areas. Thus any one film could include all or some of the following: a few lines detailing the plot; mentions of key personnel; consideration of the animation methods and techniques applied (ones, it should be noted, that allow Osmond to include both the 1933 King Kong - “...unquestionably the first feature to have an animated star” - and Avatar amongst his selections); a bit on its cultural and/or historical and/or cinematic impact; anecdotes from their productions; and, above all, what makes them tick. Needless to say many of the entries are deserving of their own monographs in their own right (as has, in some instances, been the case; indeed, Osmond wrote a BFI Film Classic on Spirited Away), but there is still a tremendous amount of detail covered here.

One of Osmond’s strengths is in conveying just what it is that makes many of his choices so special. The manner in which he describes a certain moment in Dumbo as “character animation’s Holy Grail” or addresses the physicality of earliest surviving animated feature The Adventures of Prince Achmed make you want to put the book down and go straight to the DVD player (or hunt e-tailers for an elusive disc). He’s also very good at locating the appeal certain titles have, as with Akira for example, and how its “cartoon violence looked transgressive to anyone who hadn’t seen Ralph Bakshi’s early films or the more recent Heavy Metal”. Not that Osmond is necessarily an out-and-out fan of every film he has opted to include. He posits a potentially superior Fantastic Mr. Fox in which its “American-indie” dialogue is re-dubbed back into more Dahl-ish English a là television’s The Magic Roundabout and agrees with Claire Kitson that Svankmajer’s Alice works better in episodes (as it was shown on British TV) owing to its “one-note strangeness”. Conversely, he can also be surprisingly kind to some of the more unexpected inclusions: Ferngully: The Last Forest, largely forgotten until its similarities to Avatar brought it back into some peoples’ memories, is deemed to be more than a mere reference point; The Rescuers’ presence is undoubtedly informed by the fact that it was the first Disney animation the author saw on the big screen.

Equally important is the amount of context Osmond provides, either personal (relating Isao Takahata‘s Grave of the Fireflies to the director’s own experiences, for example) or on a much wider scale. There is a tremendous amount of cross-referencing going on, both between the various inclusions here and other titles not selected. To use the most obvious example, we have Bruno Bozzetto’s Allegro non troppo seen through the lens of the film it spoofs, Fantasia. Similarly, the entry on Antz is as much about its rival CGI insect movie A Bug’s Life as it is the film itself. Yet Osmond also likes to look at animation on a broader register and so has no qualms about relating Karel Zeman’s The Fabulous World of Jules Verne to the computer generated environs of Tron, 300 or Speed Racer, despite it being a Czech production from the late fifties. Likewise Bob Clampett’s infamous Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs warrants a mention during the discussion of Avatar. Unexpected, certainly, yet every one of Osmond’s reference points make sense. The effect is that we consider not only the individual title in question, but also the history of animated cinema as a whole; for Osmond it is all interconnected, and rightly so.

Indeed, the result is such that 100 Animated Feature Films is more than simply 100 carefully selected examples. This sense of interconnected is enhanced if you read through the book in an A to Z fashion as opposed to cherry picking the entries. In this manner we can move from Avatar to French animator Michel Ocelot to Bambi to a spin-off feature from the nineties’ Batman animated series or from a Canadian film to a French film to an American entry to one that’s distinctly British. Factor in the various reference points contained within each entry and this already diverse selection becomes even more diverse. (As a side note it is also worth pointing out that the A to Z approach also counters any arguments of a misbalance; it’s harder to perceive any reliance on a particular method, style or country of origin when we swing so rapidly between so many varieties.) Furthermore, as with the Antz entry and its heavy referencing to A Bug’s Life, the pairing or grouping of titles within the discussion of one particular film means that a number of those which some will feel are unfairly excluded still get their dues. Heavy Metal figures in the Rock and Rule entry, Bakshi’s The Lord of the Rings is discussed/dismissed in American Pop’s, and so on.

In fact, the only notable exclusions are hardly Osmond’s fault at all. The fact that 100 Animated Feature Films concentrates, of course, on full-length titles only means that a number of key figures in animation are understandably missing. There has always been a strong link between the short and feature, most notably when a director moves from one to the other. Instances are numerable throughout the book from Halas and Bachelor and their Animal Farm to Nick Park and the Wallace and Gromit big-screen spin-off The Curse of the Were-Rabbit. But not all directors have matched the qualities of their shorts when moving into larger productions. Chuck Jones is a key example here with his The Phantom Tollbooth being amongst the worst entries in his entire filmography - and hence it finds no place in 100 Animated Feature Films. (Although I do wonder as to whether Osmond considered including one of the Looney Tunes compilation films - 1001 Rabbit Tales, say, or Looney, Looney, Looney Bugs Bunny Movie - as a means of acknowledging their huge significance within American animation.) On the other hand there are also those directors whose move into features also saw a shift into live action, as was the case with Frank Tashlin, the Brothers Quay, Walerian Borowczyk or Zbigniew Rybczynski (interestingly the latter two did figure in another Screen Guide, 100 European Horror Films). And so, once again, whilst all important animators, there simply is no way of accommodating them. It’s a situation that offers up only one possible solution: a follow-up volume. So pick up 100 Animated Feature Films and hope that enough people do likewise to prompt the BFI to ask Osmond to complete his overview with 100 Animated Shorts.

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