Dec 23, 2010 12:00AM

Drawn Together

Our top five animated films.

There is something gut-wrenchingly awesome about a good animated film, and the past decade has produced some absolute ragers. From war epics to dystopian sci-fi and coming-of-age stories played out with surrealistic flair, we give you our top five animated picks.

5) Akira (1988)

Directed by Katsuhiro Otomo.

Akira is a 1988 Japanese manga film based on the hugely popular cartoon series of the same name. Despite the fact that more than half of the manga's original content had to be cut for its on-screen adaptation, the film still manages to be epic in its proportions.

The film is set in Neo-Toyko, the dystopian afterthought of a nuclear explosion that allegedly annihilated the original city in the late 1980s. Neo-Tokyo is rife with terrorism, political violence and gang wars, producing a mood of dull volatility that is emphasised by the aggressive density of the cityscape. Put simply, the plot focuses on Kaneda's attempts to rescue his best friend Tetsuo, who has been abducted by the government for the purposes of scientific experimentation. However, Akira's premise is much bigger. Tetsuo's transformation brings into play a horde of semi-supernatural forces with explosive capacities capable of determining questions as big as the meaning of life itself. The plot developments are too extensive and complicated than could be detailed here, a fact that becomes increasingly exhausting as the film goes on and the climaxes never seem to end.

The first half of the film is the most interesting. Bikie gang wars are played out on screaming highways accompanied by chattering beats and frenzied lighting effects, while the psychological experimentation on Tetsuo's brain sends him into hallucinogenic spins. The dialogue is cheesy and the sci-fi totally over the top, but Akira is dosed up on enough punkish cool and explosive action to make it more than just amiably watchable.

4) Persepolis (2007)

Directed by Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud.

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Persepolis, another French film, is the live version of Marjane Satrapi's graphic novel autobiography released in 2000. The film begins the narration of Satrapi's life when she is nine years old and living through the onset of the Iranian revolution. Essentially a coming-of-age story, the film tracks Satrapi's move to Vienna as a teenager and her subsequent struggle to find and retain a sense of her own identity.

Despite the playful nature of the animation, Persepolis is weighty in its thematic content. Consistently being downtrodden by religious authority figures and jilted by lovers, Satrapi's portrayal of her own coming of age is unflinchingly raw and frank. But this is part of the film's general appeal; nothing has been cut in the pursuit of an easier or more streamlined story. To lighten the load, the poignant seriousness of the narrative is laced with lots of silly irreverence and playful good humour. In one scene, Satrapi attends an art class in an Islamic school. The industrious lecturer stands speaking beside a slide of Boticelli's The Birth of Venus where almost the entirety of the painting has been scribbled out to cover the nudity of the goddess' body.

The content is enhanced by animation that is sharp, slick and surreal. Old women loom above the small Marjane, their burqas swaying like charmed snakes, while Marjane's teenage growth spurts are depicted as a series of grossly exaggerated bulging knees and elongated limbs. Persepolis is edgy, affecting and more than you'd expect from your average coming-of-age flick.

3) The Triplets of Belleville (2003)

Directed by Sylvain Chomet.

The Triplets of Belleville is an animation notable for the absence of almost any dialogue. Instead, this kooky tale of a persistent grandmother and her eccentric entourage of three vaudeville singing nannies is played out entirely in a series of clicks, bangs and knee-slapping tunes. Whatever the film may lack in spoken word, however, it more than makes up for in sass. One scene sees the four female geriatrics attempt to distract an auditorium of French mafia by twanging refrigerator shelves, slapping a hand over a vacuum cleaner's suction pipe and thwacking a bicycle spool to create their own zany ditty.

All the action revolves around the attempts of Madame Souza, a doting French grandmother, to save her grandson, Champion, from the clutches of the French mafia. The young man has been abducted by two impeccably suited thugs while competing in the Tour de France and has been shipped to New York. Souza, dog in tow, dutifully follows by paddling across the Atlantic in what becomes the beginning of a crusade to get Champion home. Despite the quiet strength of the narrative thread, the film does not feel as concerned with plot as it is about the idiosyncrasies of the characters and the way that they can be best represented through the quality of the animation. Appendages are extended, lines are warped and oddities over-amped to lend an unhinged slickness to the whole affair.

2) Spirited Away (2003)

Directed by Hayao Miyazaki.

Hayao Miyazaki is a co-founder of Japanese animation studio Studio Ghibli, a name which, along with Miyazaki's, has become synonymous with producing some of the most widely recognised and highly regarded animated films in the world. Spirited Away sees Miyazaki quite firmly in his element; supernatural forces, an unexplainable alternate world, a young protagonist plucked from reality and a redemptive journey have all become hallmarks of Miyazaki's style. This time, the story centres around Chihiro, a girl who is reluctantly accompanying her parents on a trip to a new home. The humdrum narrative of the opening is very much in keeping with Miyazaki's style; before too long the protagonist and viewer are lurched into a world where the director's fantasy reigns supreme.

Over the course of the film, Chihiro is accompanied by a motley melange of characters spun from the fibres of Miyazaki's expansive imagination, among them a masked, people-guzzling spectre and a multi-limbed grandfather who feeds pastel coloured stars to animated specks of soot. This film is totally magical and irrevocably otherworldly. The zany imagery itself is often sufficient to captivate Miyazaki's greedy audience.

1) Waltz With Bashir (2008)

Directed by Ari Folman.

Waltz With Bashir is an Israeli animated documentary which centres on writer/director Ari Folman's attempts to piece together his past. In 1982, Folman was nineteen and served as a soldier in the Lebanon War. Prompted by a recurring dream, he decides to delve into his memory in an attempt to reassemble his experience of the war. Folman's memory, being an altered version of the past, plays itself out in a highly personal and surreally warped narrative of the director's experience of armed conflict.

Far from merely assisting the plot, the animation lends its own captivating brand of graphic cool to the film. It is difficult to describe the power rendered in a shot of three stencilled soldiers rising from a black sea, flesh illuminated by the yellow light of flares, or the sensuality emanating from a barely lit night club scene where the director's teenage lover dances on a drum under the light of strobes. In this way, the film has the lighting of a noir and the guts of an uncompromising war epic, all overlaid in eerie and deceptively morphing visuals.

Despite the enchanting quality of the imagery, it's as if Folman wants to dissuade his audience from getting too caught up in the film's 'look': in a final swipe at his audience's critical distance, the last 10 minutes of the film is live and unanimated footage of a post-massacre scene. This has the effect of lurching the viewer back to face the tangible horrors of reality, reminding them not to be tripped up by the animation's charm. It is in this respect only that Folman misjudges his medium. Waltz With Bashir is a gripping and poignant documentary, but a better animation.

Words: Jacinta Mulders