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.
2. Princess Mononoke (1997)
Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke was the highest grossing film in the world in 1997, the same year that James Cameron’s mammoth Titanic was released, making this film one of the most successful ever made in film history. It actually outsold Titanic in more countries and has been embraced as Japan’s equivalent of America’s Citizen Kane. Mononoke is not the name of the heroine of the story. The heroine is San (voiced by Claire Danes), a human princess of the wild who is adopted and raised by the wolf goddess Moro (Gillian Anderson). Mononoke is an ancient Japanese word for spirit or monster. It is not a name.
Miyazaki had pledged to “tell stories for children” from early on in his career. This is evident throughout, but, this film is different. The great author Neil Gaiman writes the English screenplay for Miramax. It is darker. It is violent. There is much more at stake, so it seems. Miyazaki’s other films are not bound by time or place, necessarily. Princess Mononoke is a hybrid of medieval Japanese history and spiritual folklore/magic. Just as with the “thin places” of the Celtic community, so it is with the Japanese. At the dawn of The Iron Age, the Emishi people, a tribe of ancient hill folk, lived in fear of not only the rise of the iron bullet and eventually the musket but also the feud between the very real gods and demons of the forest. The young, handsome Prince Ashitaka (Billy Crudup), the last of the Emishi princes, springs into action when his peaceful village is attacked by a raging boar god who has been infected and is slowly transforming into a demon. This scene is one of the most exciting in the film and it is the opener!
While Ashitaka takes down the hideous boar demon, a “nameless god of rage and hate,” he has also been infected by the boar’s demon sickness. He may still be human, but his arm is that of a demon. If he does not act quickly, the demon sickness will consume his entire body, mind, and spirit and he will become that which infects him. Ashitaka is commanded to leave his village by the matriarch and makes his way into the unknown to find the cure for his demon sickness. It turns out that the dead boar god/demon was infected when he was shot by an iron musket ball from a firearm in Irontown. Ashitaka heads toward Irontown, ruled by the power-hungry Lady Eboshi (Minnie Driver).
Along his journey, Ashitaka encounters Jigo the wandering monk (Billy Bob Thornton) and eventually San herself. It turns out that Lady Eboshi is responsible for the transformation and death of the giant boar god/demon who attacked Ashitaka’s village. A leper colony within Irontown is hired by Eboshi to build muskets and make iron musket balls. Weaponry turning peaceful creatures into demons? Per usual, Miyazaki’s critical lens on society always feels timely. Eboshi’s greatest desire is to kill a god and maintain rule of the forest. San and Moro will stop at nothing to protect the forest and have Eboshi defeated. Ashitaka, however, feels that he is called to be the voice of peace between San and Eboshi. He sees the capacity for evil and good in both of them.
It is difficult to call any film flawless, but Princess Mononoke comes pretty damn close. I cannot say it any better than the great Roger Ebert who said in his review of the film, “I go to the movies for many reasons. Here is one of them. I want to see wondrous sights not available in the real world, in stories where myth and dreams are set free to play. Animation opens that possibility, because it is freed from gravity and the chains of the possible. Realistic films show the physical world; animation shows its essence. Animated films are not copies of “real movies,” are not shadows of reality, but create a new existence in their own right. True, a lot of animation is insipid, and insulting even to the children it is made for. But great animation can make the mind sing.” Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke makes the mind sing and we are grateful.
1. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)
We have now made our way to number one on my list and it is…well…it HAS to be Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. It isn’t the greatest animated film ever made simply because it was the very first, although that in itself is tremendously of note, but it was also the first in a lot of things, and it did all of them damn well. Based on the Grimm’s fairy tale, this film pulls no punches. It is not a classic family film like all of the other Disney fare. It is at turns hilarious and scary as hell. The character of Snow White is certainly not as developed as any of the other Disney heroines. She is, actually, rather boring.
What makes the very first animated film interesting and creative is that Disney took a bold step in, essentially, introducing the Queen/Witch as the character around whom most of the significant action revolves. Second only to the evil Queen are the seven dwarfs aka the comic relief. Comic relief are NEVER central characters in films of the Disney formula. This is why they are called “relief.” But here, we have the original, ultimate, and most terrifying Disney villain and seven bumbling, foolish dwarfs.
When Disney re-released Snow White on DVD in a special edition from the coveted Disney “vault” in the early 2000’s, they called the film “The One That Started It All” and they featured the Queen/Witch as the main character in the trailer for the re-release. The strange thing was, Disney decided to pitch the film as a horror film as opposed to a delightful Disney family film. This felt appropriate to me, given my feelings about the film. See for yourself: (insert trailer)
Creepy as hell, right? Many have been lead to believe that simply because this was the first animated film that it was the very first children’s film. I strongly believe, however, that this is not the case. Before Gregory Maguire’s Wicked and his series of re-imagined fairy tale villains and before Angelina Jolie was Maleficent, director William Cottrell saw fit, in 1937, to focus on the humanity of an otherwise evil character. The Queen is, almost, a character we can relate to and feel for. She may scare the living daylights out of me, to this day, but she is human and she is pitiable.
Many of the early animated pieces in our nation’s history were used as satire to make fun of particular establishments and to propagate hatred for Germans and Asians. I am amazed to find that Cottrell and Disney did not seemingly give a shit about these categories. It has been said that Walt Disney, himself, was terribly anti-Jew but even these sentiments cannot be found in this film. What we have are two very strong statements made about villains: 1. They are human and, as such, their lives are not as black and white as we would think. 2. They can be quite scary.
You must understand that this film not only set the bar for every Disney film that followed, but it also set the bar, and remains the standard, for every single animated film in world history. This film remains extraordinarily relevant just as much today as it did in 1937 because, honest to goodness, humanity hasn’t changed all that much in the past 80 years.
For example: You want to know who is “fairest in the land?” Turn on your TV. There are wicked Queens/Witches everywhere and they are complex human beings, just like you and me.
Perhaps this is the most important message delivered to us by the 50 Greatest Animated Films and their animators: Animation is just as capable as live-action films at telling stories that are complex, deep, and rich with imagination. Animation stands on its own feet, not only as a means of escape from our lives, but as a means of finding our lives, too.
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.