Top of the Crop: Ten Animated Features That Should Be in the Criterion Collection

The Criterion Collection constantly releases and carefully picks films considered to be inspiring, surreal, test what can done in cinema, obscure gems and classics that stand the test of time. Yet, within this boundless collection lies very little in the way of animation. Odd that a collection devoted to covering coveted features would have hardly any animation on its slate. Besides releasing Akira on Criterion Laserdisc back in 1995, no other animated movie has been chosen. No animated features, but somehow, the craptacular Heaven’s Gate and multimillion dollar cliche fest Armageddoen got released. Where in the hell is the justice in that? As an animation fan, this is dismal and recommend these excellent animated features get added sometime in the near future. For the sake of the list, I am avoiding Disney, Pixar & Studio Ghibli features since those features get stellar releases via their own respective studios. Criterion, take note.

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10. Heavy Metal (1981)

An anthology of surreal visuals, different art styles and pure stoner insanity, Heavy Metal brings the beloved cult magazine to life on the big screen. The soundtrack combining the early 80’s biggest rockers from Sammy Hagar to Journey to Devo is impressive guiding each story along. The stories themselves range from science fiction to fantasy not shying away from showing what cannot be soon in children’s animation. The voice cast features prominent Canadian actors at the time with John Candy and Eugene Levy appearing in a majority of the segments. The film takes risk and would be a treat to see added in.

9. The Thief and the Cobbler (1992, ’93, ’95 & 2006)

Richard William’s pet project The Thief and the Cobbler suffered a disastrous history of production starting in 1964 and ending production around 1992 with Allied Filmmakers and Miramax Films turning it into a Aladdin rip-off. The film itself is much more than that with the various reworked version of The Recobbled Cut by Garrett Gilchrist being the most complete version of the original feature and as close to the workprint as possible. The animation in the film is beyond compare with every detail intricately drawn and making outrageous near CGI effects all by hand without a computer ever touching the finished product. Vincent Price’s voice works well as Zig Zag with a menacing yet flamboyant nature intimidating the audience. With the troubled production still lingering to this day, it would be a shame not to dive deeper into this forgotten gem.

8. Coonskin (1975)

Ralph Baski may very well be the godfather of alternative animation with his works Fritz the Cat examining the drug-fueled nature of adulthood and Wizards examining a neo-fantasy post-apocalyptic wasteland that borders on Nazism. However, his highly controversial Coonskin is perfect for addition. Taking on the blaxpolitation genre with a  warped version of Uncle Remus Br’er Rabbit tales, Coonskin uses racial stereotypes to focus on satirizing the concept of racism and the mobster genre that was booming in the 70’s. Bashki’s unique and exaggerated style shines through combining realistic photography and Looney Tunes-esque animation to create a new vision that even live-action would never dare to go.

7. The Secret of NIMH (1982)

Breaking away from the reign figureheads of Disney, Don Bluth took off and decided to adapted the novel The Secret of NIMH into his masterpiece directorial debut. An acclaimed novel itself, NIMH showed off the visual style Bluth learned while at Disney and surpassed anything Disney did in the 80’s by diving deep into a dark story with a strong female lead, both ideas unheard of at this time in animation. The light fantasy aspects are here and there, but its main focus is to tell the journey of Ms. Brisby leading to her becoming more than she ever could know. It never skips a beat and does not dumb down any of the story for the sake of being children’s fare. This one is a special case as it has been released time and time again, but its addition would benefit from going into what makes this feature unique from the rest of the Dark Age drivel Disney was putting out.

6. Watership Down (1978)

Take the already familiar and cute nature of rabbits and turn it on its head to create an epic of survival and the risks one takes in order to find a new home. Like Secret of NIMH, using its focus on nice animation that seems intended for children, Watership gives that the bird a focuses on the journey at hand with bloodshed galore, concepts only a modern thriller had and the tone of hope shining through the bleakness of the near loss of humanity the rabbits from the Warren. John Hurt leads the cast with his booming vulnerable voice waiting for the day that they might make it through their exodus. The addition of this would show that even the most innocent of creature can be a manic or destructive as the humans that surround their world.

5. Perfect Blue (1997)

Satoshi Kon’s beautiful psychological thrill ride Perfect Blue captures the brilliance of identity crisis and the paranoia of the reality that haunts the character. As Mima struggles from changing from her good girl image she had in her J-Pop girl group CHAM!, she is caught in her own trap trying to differentiate what is in her mind and what is in her reality. It does not help that their also seems to be a stalker involved in the mix creating more anxiety. With imagery of gang rape and murder, combined with a haunting score, Perfect Blue delivers an anime powerhouse that even surpasses the best of Miyazaki by deciding to follow in the footsteps of Alfred Hitchcock’s masterful storytelling. To induct it into Criterion would be astounding and  could also serve as a great sendoff to the late but great Satoshi Kon.

4. The Iron Giant (1999)

Continuing the trend of fantastic animation directorial debut, Brad Bird’s The Iron Giant kick started the impressive career of Mr. Bird by telling a rich and beautiful tale that warms the heart. The film follows Hogarth Hughes who discovers a giant robot, voiced by an up-and-coming Vin Diesel if you could believe it, and forms an unlikely friendship until Kent Mansley and the U.S. government get a hold of the case to see where the giant is hiding. Playing on the idea of fearing the unknown is brilliant and makes for amazing satire of the Red Scare paranoia surrounding the 1950’s during the Space Race.  It was a box office bomb on release, but today is fondly remembered by those who saw it after countless airplay on television and a cult classic of the animation world. Bird is a high in demand name and this film has yet to see a proper Blu-Ray release, so imagine the possibilities of a Criterion release.

3. The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926)

One of the oldest animated films, Prince Achmed is the grandfather of the stop-motion genre. Using intricate shadow puppets and different filters of lighting, the feature gives an interesting tale utilizing elements from 1001 Arabian Nights and created a visual treat of master craftsmanship. As Prince Achemed battles his way alongside Aladdin and the Witch of the Fiery Mountain to get back his magic lamp and defeat a wicked sorcerer. This silent features is gorgeous with an amazing score, designs inspired by ancient Persia and fluid puppetry that never loses its luster. As the precursor to hand-drawn animation, Prince Achmed could benefit from the collection by showing the world once and for all what could be done within the world of animation.

2. When the Wind Blows (1986)

When the Wind Blows takes the art style of the Christmas classic The Snowman to create a gorgeous and terrifying look at the cause and effects of a nuclear apocalypse. Following Raymond Briggs’ original book quite closely, it focuses on an elderly couple James and Hilda Bloggs as they go through nuclear fallout and slowly die  of radiation sickness despite trying to live their lives normally among the dying landscape. It is depressing as hell, but the bleak nature of the situation (which seems to be a theme in these selections) is brilliantly captured with its gorgeous animation and precious art style reminiscent of Hallmark cards. Combined with an amazing soundtrack featuring Genesis and Criterion alumni David Bowie (The Man Who Fell Through Time), this film is ripe for the powers that be at Criterion to sweep up.

1. Twice Upon A Time (1983)

This is an interesting case as many have yet to see this film (me included), but only because the Geroge Lucas produced Twice Upon A Time has yet to see the light of day on any release outside of bootlegs on YouTube and Laserdisc. The film has different version ranging from one with pure adult-language to a PG cut, uses of improvisational actors instead of legitimate actors, such as famed 80’s voice actor Lorenzo Music, and HBO had trouble even getting a decent cut that both producer Bill Couturie and director John Korty both equally enjoyed. The film is said to have the same plot of 2012’s Rise of the Gaurdians which brings up some curiosity and uses cutout animation and stop-motion to create a unique design that sets it apart from the rest. The Criterion Collection should find this film’s original cut or cuts to release and dive into the history of this long lost work.

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