To honor the rich history of animated feature film making over the years, Joey Armstrong has chosen 50 animated films that have had some of the greatest cultural impact on adults and children alike.
4. My Neighbor Totoro (1988)
Hayao Miyazaki’s My Neighbor Totoro is tied with Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: a space odyssey as my all time favorite film. They both inspire the same sense of wonder in me. Totoro, the big plushy tree spirit, has now become as iconic as Mickey Mouse or Bugs Bunny and you can find mugs, t-shirts, wrist bands, and stuffed toys of him EVERYWHERE. Totoro was John Lasseter’s primary inspiration for Toy Story. In fact, in Toy Story 2 there is a brief shot of a Totoro doll sitting on a little girl’s dresser! Lasseter sought to harness the world of peaceful childlike wonder that Miyazaki so seamlessly created in this film. This was the first time that Miyazaki, already an accomplished animator, really and truly introduced the world to the full wonder, awe, and innocence of his folky universe where wise little children meet lovable, odd spirits in the most mundane of places.
This film set the bar for the rest of Miyazaki and Studio Ghibili’s films. Each film has attempted, in one way or another, to live up to the beauty and subtle power revealed in Totoro. In the film, two little girls move into a brand new house in the country with their dad, a professor at a local university. The mother is strangely absent at the beginning (where’s your ammo now, Dr. James Dobson!?)but we find out that she is in a local hospital recovering from an illness that we do not know the details about because they don’t matter.
The best scenes in this film, aside from the scenes with the big, fluffy Totoro and his miniature pals, are the scenes within the new country house that the family is moving into. We take the journey with them into a huge, old, rundown house with lots of character and rich history. There are very old memories and magic preserved within its walls, so says Granny, the wise old sage who works in the rice paddies next door. There are “soot sprites” everywhere and late at night, during family bath time, dad leads his little girls in loud laughter and singing in order to scare the sprites out of the house. These might be poor, rural folk, but their capacity for wisdom, joy, and storytelling is deep and rich. This is Miyazaki’s way of saying “May it be so in our own world.”
3. Fantasia (1940)
James Algar’s Fantasia is, as mentioned before, one of the four early masterpieces of Walt Disney animation. This one, however, might be the most “out-of-the-box” creative, so to speak. It is truly, in every sense of the word, a masterpiece. It is not only a tribute to some of the greatest orchestral pieces ever written, it is also an interpretation of these. It is bold and daring in this way and it succeeds in ways that are still mind-blowing and heart-melting, even today, 76 years later.
Master of ceremonies, Deems Taylor, enters as a dark silhouette and narrates the opening of the film. The program has begun! We rush to our seats. But put down the popcorn, folks. You won’t want the sound of munching in your ear while you absorb this perfect meld of motion and music. Toccata and Fugue in D Minor by Bach opens the sweeping order of musical numbers. Here, the animation team interprets the music through shapes, lines, and patterns of color. The Philadelphia Orchestra gives us the music. Leopold Stokowski is our conductor for the evening.
Next we have Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite. The movement of the seasons is captured by fairies, fish, flowers, mushrooms, and leaves. Then The Sorcerer’s Apprentice by Paul Dukas unfolds in all of its Goethian glory through one of the most iconic Mickey Mouse shorts ever made. Disney’s beloved mascot mouse causes a bunch of undue trouble in the home of an old, frightening sorcerer who punishes him with a whack on the behind at its conclusion.
I cannot decide if Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring is interpreted more masterfully by choreographer Pina Bausch or by this film in which we have the history of Earth and the cosmos. We have everything from the formation of the planets, to the first evolved species, to the rise and fall of the dinosaurs. Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony is next, set in the mythical Greco-Roman world of gods, goddesses, cherubs, fauns, centaurs, and overflowing wine.
The zaniest piece is surely Amilcare Ponchielli’s Dance of the Hours with ballerina ostriches, hippos, elephants, and alligators, all clumsily graceful.Night on Bald Mountain by Mussorgsky is our concluding piece and it remains one of the most confusing and frightening endings to a film I have ever witnessed. The rest of Fantasia feels so ecstatic, innocent, and whimsical. It’s so majestic. Then, we have the devil Chernabog who awakens at night and summons his demons and spirits who begin a rather, surprisingly, adult dance around the fires of what we assume is Bald Mountain. It is terrifying but brilliant sequence. As a child, it gave me nightmares for years. Revisiting this sequence as an adult, I am in awe of the boldness and bravery with which Disney approach the narrative of darkness in our world. As Mussorgsky’s dark piece draws to a close, church bells are overheard in the creepy silence and Chernabog descends into his hole. Morning has come and with it Schubert’s Ave Maria which rings in peace and Light. It is a Light that overcomes darkness. Perhaps this, ultimately, is what Fantasia is all about.
Joey Armstrong is a hospital chaplain from Western New York. He is also a playwright and amateur cartoonist. Follow him on Twitter @chaplainmystic and Medium, where he writes more reviews for film and television.