Here is a suggested summer watch list for your family: the top ten animated family films of this century that are not just great entertainment, but also have something "extra" to inspire and nurture your family.
Personally, I will always be grateful to Disney for the wholesome animated films I grew up with (and for their continuing commitment to children’s entertainment, although with widely varying quality and value), but now there are a number of other wonderfully gifted animators producing intriguing animated features. Due to the Motion Picture Academy creating a “Best Animated Feature” category in 2001, more animated films have become available to us over these past 18 years.
As readers familiar with media mindfulness and my Windows to the Soul blog know, we use specific criteria when we offer a commentary on films. To make this list, I included my usual criteria, but I especially considered these factors:
* great artistry as an animated film
* an authentic, meaningful, multilayered story that offers insights into our human experience and our very humanity, as we are created in the image of God: films that specifically “showcase” the dignity of the human person and the giftedness of life
* solid entertainment and/or engagement so that the whole family (or in some cases most of the family) could watch, enjoy, and perhaps discover something more.
This week, I’ll start the countdown (#s10-6), and next month conclude with the top five. Occasionally I’ll throw in a few honorable mentions that are well worth seeing but for various reasons didn’t meet the criteria for viewing by the whole family. And, if you're interested in listening to a short version, tune in to Salt + Light TV's Radio Hour for their upcoming episode for June 30, 2018.
10. Kubo and the Two Strings (2016; PG)
directed by Travis Knight, from Laika Entertainment.
Kubo and the Two Strings is the magical quest of young Kubo, a young boy who supports himself and his fragile mother by entertaining the nearby villagers with his musical stories that literally come to life as animated origami figures when he plays his three-stringed shamisen. Kubo has only one eye and has grown up listening to the fantastical stories that his mother tells him about his past, especially that he must hide from the evil spirit of his grandfather (also known as the Moon King), who stole one of Kubo’s eye when he was a baby, and who wants to steal his other eye. Kubo doesn’t know what is real and what is not, but when he accidentally stays out after dark, his mother gives her life protecting Kubo—both physically and magically.
In his adventurous quest to overcome his grandfather, Kubo is joined by two unusual companions, who help him to find a magical suit of armor that his mother hoped would protect him. Eventually Kubo returns to the village to confront his grandfather. The beauty of the ending is how Kubo is able to escape his grandfather’s evil plan.
Reasons to Watch: Darker than your typical Disney film, Kubo and the Two Strings unerringly weaves together the light and dark motifs of the story: both Kubo’s resilience and ability to play (even in the midst of a life-and-death chase), and his sorrow at the loss of his parents. Incredible animation by the Laika Entertainment Studio, a compelling and brave protagonist, origami figures that fly to life, and a lighthearted tone that balances its approach to the deeper themes of family and loss of loved ones, Kubo and the Two Strings has something for everyone in the family. The importance of family, the respect due to elders and those who have gone before us, the power of stories and the importance of memories, all lead to a wonderful resolution to the story that doesn’t rely on physical violence or “winning.”
9. The Breadwinner (2017; PG-13; based on the children’s novel by Deborah Ellis)
Directed by Norah Twomey, from Cartoon Saloon.
The Breadwinner is about eleven year old Parvana who becomes determined to help her family survive under the oppression of Taliban control after her father is unjustly imprisoned. (Her worn-out mother, her older sister and Parvana herself are not legally allowed to go out without a male accompanying them, so when Parvana’s father is arrested in retaliation for protecting Parvana, their family—including Parvana’s toddler younger brother—are in real danger of starving to death.) The dramatic tension of this film never lets up, and yet, the gentle animation style, Parvana’s unselfish love for her family, her stories for her little brother, and the kindness that she finds—both in her father and in unexpected places—broadens the film’s power, appeal, and accessibility for audiences young and old.
Cartoon Saloon is a relatively new but gifted animation studio that has its own unique style and consistently produces masterpieces, all visually delightful and extraordinarily engaging in their storytelling. The Breadwinner is their third feature. (Their first feature is higher on this list.)
Reasons to Watch: An honest and troubling depiction of life under Taliban control, this is not a film for young children. Parents would do well to watch the film alone first, to evaluate if their youngsters are ready for such a true-to-life story. Watching and then discussing The Breadwinner together as a family would be especially helpful. (This important story should be disturbing for audiences of all ages, as it is worthy to note that, though the film is set in the 1990s when the Taliban first took power, today Taliban presence is once again growing rapidly and controls or influences a large part of the country of Afghanistan.)
Parvana’s loving commitment to family, her courage in both seeking work and providing for her family, and her refusal to give up on seeing her father again, are beautiful and hopeful qualities that show the true heart of Afghan mothers and daughters. My favorite parts of the film were the specially-animated sequences of the story that Parvana tells her younger brother. Though Parvana does not seem aware of it, her story becomes a metaphor for her own life, and her storytelling is how she fights the despair and hopelessness of living in such a dire situation.
(Honorable mention goes to Cartoon Saloon’s second animated feature, Song of the Sea, a much lighter, delightful Selkie fairytale about the magical quest of Ben and his little sister Saiorse, who never speaks. Having lost their mother to the sea when Saiorse was born, Ben treasures the seashell his mother left him. When Saiorse blows into it, the children begin a quest to unlock the mystery of their mother’s whereabouts and Saiorse’s silence.)
8. The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (2013; PG)
Directed by Isao Takahata, from Studio Ghibli.
An ancient Japanese folktale about a tiny princess who is sent to earth as a punishment. An elderly bamboo cutter discovers her magically growing in a bamboo plant. He brings her home and raises her with his wife in the idyllic country side where she happily plays, but the little princess grows too rapidly from a tiny girl into a lovely young woman.
Despite their happy country existence, her father feels his lovely daughter deserves the best money can buy. He finds a rich home in the city for his daughter, and has her trained in the ways of wealthy society. The princess unwillingly obeys her father, torn by her love for her previous life in the forest with her friends, and her desire to obey and make her father happy. But the inhuman process of choosing a husband merely for appearance and status becomes greatly distressing to the princess. The ending is not a “happily ever after,” but it offers hope and also mystery.
Reasons to Watch: I have not yet found a Studio Ghibli film I didn’t like (here is a list of some of the best Studio Ghibli films I have enjoyed), but The Tale of Princess Kaguya is their most visually exquisite film. With all the hallmarks of a great Studio Ghibli film, there is every reason to watch: a beautifully told story, complex characters, incredibly symbolism in the visuals, and deep themes, including:
- choices have consequences
- the nurturing and love important for a child in the family
- a critique of living by appearances and seeking social status
- the value of a simple life of harmony and love
- the incredible beauty and gift of nature
The Tale of Princess Kaguya is a gentle, delightful film for the whole family.
7. The Incredibles (2004; PG)
Directed by Brad Bird, from Walt Disney/Pixar Animation.
In some ways, this entire list could be made up of animation giants Disney & Pixar, and it was hard to choose which of their films to highlight. The Incredibles makes it onto the list because it is truly a story for families: a more-than-fun story about a family of superheroes who hide their abilities and try to live a “normal” life. The Incredibles is a coming of age story, but not just for one child or teen. Rather, it’s an entire family’s “coming of age” story, as each family member has his or her own special gift and each member must “grow into” and value their own gifts and those of the other members of their family. Today, The Incredibles is an unusual portrait of a family that has problems and is far from perfect, but is ultimately quite healthy and loving, and who grow closer together—both with their special abilities and simply as the persons they are.
Reasons to Watch: A lighter choice on our list, nevertheless this “family coming-of-age” story offers insights for every member in the family—both animated characters and the flesh-and-blood viewers—all in the context of a loving family with a father and mother who are not only great parents, but understand that their family (not just themselves as individuals) has an important role in the mission of saving the world. (Plus, the sequel is in theaters right now!)
6. Coco (2017; PG)
Directed by Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina, from Walt Disney/Pixar Animation. Disney/Pixar has made many outstanding films, some of which highlight other cultures (especially the wonderful Moana, one of my personal favorites). Coco is here on the list because of its wonderful homage to Mexican families. Authentic cultural touches include the Mexican music; the tradition of celebrating the Day of the Dead that, while certainly not a Catholic tradition, does point to the importance of honoring our ancestry; the bright colors and artistic design; and even small gestures of the characters, such as the grandmother throwing her shoe to rebuke her stubborn grandson.
The film centers around young boy Miguel’s dream to become a musician, which is a problem because his large, loving family has a generations-old ban on music. Miguel is a well-drawn, recognizable figure of a young boy who is torn between family and his dream. Well-developed characters, the magic of interacting with family ancestors who are already deceased, all create a wonderfully well-rounded picture of family and highlight the importance of family—even in following one’s dreams.
Reasons to Watch: In addition to the great music, fun, and family themes, Coco’s emphasis on the importance of both love and forgiveness in one’s family is beautifully drawn here.
* The Book of Life (2014; PG) was a runner-up for this spot, and deserves recognition for being the first animated feature film to bring Mexican culture to the mainstream big screen. (I suspect that The Book of Life’s release and DVD sleeper hit status helped Coco’s success.) A refreshingly entertaining and wholesome story with deeply Christian themes, The Book of Life has an astonishing, original, and vivid style of animation; a not-very-predictable plot with unexpected twists and turns, and a few emotional moments that completely hushed a theater full of families with young children. Yet, The Book of Life wobbles a bit in overall quality and seems to lack some of the authentic touches that made Coco such a moving expression of Mexican culture (perhaps partly due to the choice of music).
Both The Book of Life and Coco are amazing films with remarkably similar themes, but they each carry those themes through their stories in entirely different ways. One feature of The Book of Life that I especially appreciated was the ending—a great ending, but not the “perfectly happily ever after” that is so problematic to find in all Disney films. (If you need more reasons to watch The Book of Life, check out my original review here: https://windowstothesoul.wordpress.com/2015/06/13/a-gem-for-family-movie-night-this-summer/ )
Check back for #s 1-5 next month!