Cartoons and their creators have, over the better part of a century, acquired a reputation for skewing to the raucous and impertinent, allowing this imaginative form to be dismissed by many as incapable of embracing deeper themes. Those of us who have consumed enough of the medium know that isn’t true.
Below is a list of cartoons that defied what people have come to expect—of the genre itself, or of its specific creators. I’ve tried to interweave the more emotionally devastating titles with examples that venture into suspense, or horror, or drama. But make no mistake, the examples that do touch your heart will tap deep, and more to the point, do it in a way that won’t make you feel you’re being manipulated just for superficial melodrama. Fair warning: I’m not kidding about their power. Feel free to partake, but please, people: pace yourselves.
10. Watership Down (1978)
These ain’t your grandad’s scwewy wabbits. Eschewing Bugs’ Brooklyn accent and predilection for cross-dressing, this adaptation of Richard Adams’ fantasy novel about a group of rabbits who flee their warren in advance of a human-engineered genocide (lapincide?) maintained the species’ literally fabled reputation as tricksters, but rebalanced the perspective so the threats had a real-world consequence. There’s not an Acme product in sight, but dogs, cats, raptors, and snares are all accounted for, and are all quite deadly.
At the time of Watership Down’s debut, animation had by and large been so debased by budget constraints and banishment to the dubious realm of “kiddie entertainment” that director Martin Rosen’s lush, naturalistic mise en scène and faithful adherence to Adams’ text came as a something of a shock. Watership’s refugees were granted the power of speech and the ability to problem solve, but they bled when wounded, died when poisoned (in a nightmarishly surreal sequence), and translated the world through a mythology that acknowledged the grim reality of their position as prey, albeit prey blessed with speed and a keen instinct for survival. Legendarily, more than a few kids were traumatized by Watership Down when their parents dropped them off at the theater to spend a couple of hours with some cute li’l bunnies. We’re better braced for the film’s harsh outlook, but when the sweet, angelic voice of Art Garfunkel rings out, singing about the inevitability of death, don’t think you’re not going to be moved.
9. Boy and the World (2013)
How do you break an audience’s hearts? In the Oscar-nominated Boy and the World, it’s done with a bright color palette, eye-catching 2D animation, and a soundtrack loaded with Brazil’s finest musical talents. A young child goes chasing after his father, who has had to leave their small farm to make enough money to support his family. The boy’s travels take him to a cotton farm where migrant laborers dare not slack off in their efforts for fear of being dismissed; a textile factory where the workers toil under the threat of increasing automation; and a city where the garments produced are just so many disposables cast into a whirlwind of consumption run amuck.
Director Alê Abreu is something of a master of counterpoint. His visuals mix pencilwork, pastels, crayons, and collage, pulling back into longshot to create rhythmic patterns that captivate the eye even as they document the plight of the beings trapped within. Vehicles and equipment are turned into monsters of commerce, while a colorful, celebratory phoenix succumbs to the aerial assault of a grey-scale military. And when it appears the boy is set for the long-awaited reunion with his father, Abreu builds to the moment with a swell of action and music, only to crush the child’s spirit in the most devastating way possible. And, yet, for all the film grieves for a society where humanity is so easily smothered, Abreu finds a way to open our eyes to our power to thrive despite the darkness. In showing a literally wide-eyed innocent plunged without preparation into the harshness of the world, the director, through the beauty with which he tells his tale, provides the strongest argument for why we must never give up our capacity to hope.
8. The Lord of the Rings (1978)
Long before Peter Jackson moved Middle-earth permanently to New Zealand, cartoonist Ralph Bakshi attempted to capture the tale’s epic scale in ink and paint, with a few daring technological gambits thrown in. Adapting somewhere between 1½–2 books of J.R.R. Tolkien’s trilogy (up through the Battle of Helm’s Deep, but before Frodo’s and Sam’s confrontation with Shelob) Bakshi took the then-radical step of first filming the story with live actors, then using rotoscoping – the process of tracing the recorded action onto cels—to bring Tolkien’s hobbits, elves, orcs, etc. to life.
Having gotten his start in the waning days of Terrytoons before helming the animated debut of Spider-Man (you know, the cartoons with that theme song), and ultimately attracting notoriety with his adaptation of Robert Crumb’s Fritz the Cat, Bakshi at this point was better known for building upon the rowdy inspiration of Looney Tunes, crossed with the barrier-breaking (and unabashedly explicit) innovations of underground comics. He had tested the waters just a year earlier with the still-cartoonish Wizards, but with Lord of the Rings, he invested completely in the drama of his tale. The result was not a complete success, with the rotoscoped results ranging from fully interpolated, animated characters to contrasty, live-action performers sporting a few splashes of color. But Aragorn is more suitably “looks foul and feels fair” than in Jackson’s rendition, the Ringwraiths are eminently disturbing, Gollum is rendered in all his twisted malevolence (even if his guttural exclamations come out sounding more like, “Golly!”), and Frodo’s plunges into the foreboding dimension of the One Ring are as terrifying as anyone could want. Daring to raise feature film animation to a dramatic level that had rarely been attempted before, Bakshi’s Lord of the Rings was uneven, yet still served as a vanguard for the medium’s potential.
7. Batman: The Animated Series, “Heart of Ice” (1992)
Up until the airing of “Heart of Ice,” the Batman villain Mr. Freeze had been little more than just another bad guy with a gimmick: a freeze-ray wielding punster clonking around in a refrigerated suit. But with a self-imposed mandate to give their evil-doers some sort of motivation for their aberrant behavior, scripter Paul Dini and director Bruce Timm went the extra mile and turned the frozen miscreant into a figure of tragedy: Victor Fries, a dedicated cryogenics scientist who loses both his tolerance for warmth and his terminally ill wife when the callous industrialist funding his research (named Ferris Boyle—get it?—and voiced by Mark Hamill before he won the role of the Joker) unplugs the stasis chamber in which the woman slumbers and pushes the scientist into a cloud of cryogenic chemicals. The exposure not only alters Fries’ biology, but chills his heart, leaving him a near-automaton bereft of empathy, and out only for revenge against the man who killed his one love.
Producer Bruce Timm was drafted into the director’s chair when the show fell under a production crunch, and credits—perhaps too modestly— “Heart of Ice’s” storyboarders and its Japanese production studio for much of the episode’s impact. Whoever was responsible, between Dini’s origin story and actor Michael Ansara’s ability to voice Freeze’s icy deadness while still betraying the pain of his loss, “Heart of Ice” created a character so indelible that it wound up becoming canon. In a genre that traditionally asked viewers to cheer the good guys and boo the villains, Mr. Freeze became the bad guy for whom you could shed a tear.
6. Perfect Blue (1997)
Anime director Satoshi Kon had, shall we say, a rather unique outlook on toxic fandom. Perfect Blue follows pop idol Mima Kirigoe, who, at the prompting of her agent, decides to shed her bubblegum image, leave her girl group behind, and become a serious, adult actress. But for all those who wish her well in her new career, the woman can’t help but take note of the tidal wave of internet commenters damning her, in no uncertain terms, for forsaking their love, or the mysterious website that purports to be the diary of an alt-Mima who deeply regrets her rash decision and begs to return to the musical act that has already moved past her. And that’s before all the people involved in her new life become targets of murderous attacks, possibly by the creepy, male stalker who hovers at the periphery of her public appearances, or maybe by the other Mima that the protagonist sees when she looks in the mirror—the abandoned singing star who giggles at her anguish and taunts her for her ambitions.
Director Kon was taken away from us way too soon—in 2010, at the age of 46—leaving four feature films to his name. But those films not only distinguished themselves by all being gems in their own right, but by each delving into distinctly different genres. Perfect Blue is Kon dabbling with Hitchcockian suspense, with a dash of surreal fantasy thrown in. The director crosses the line nimbly, juxtaposing the unsettling professionalism Mima experiences as she films a rape scene for her TV debut with the eerie sight of Ghost Mima floating blithely down corridors and through the city. Anime fans were always aware that the genre offered more than giant robots and superpowered martial artists (for further evidence, see below). With Perfect Blue, Kon demonstrated that the medium could deploy its reality-bending toolset to keep you on the edge of your seat.
5. Bear Story (2014)
In a fantasy world populated solely by bears, a lone busker entertains a young customer with his mechanical puppet theater. But it isn’t long after the show starts, telling the tale of a father ripped away from his family and forced to perform in a travelling circus, that we realize that the tin automaton and the operator putting the machine into motion are one and the same. And it’s only because we’ve seen the real bear prepare for his day that we’re aware of a devastating truth: That the happy family reunion depicted within the box is a lie, that every morning the bear wakes alone to the mementos of his lost wife and son, vanished without explanation.
Chilean director Gabriel Osorio Vargas uses the Oscar-winning Bear Story as a trenchant metaphor for families torn apart during the Pinochet regime. Not unlike Boy and the World, he touches your heart through the incongruity of how the irresistible charm of the whirring, CG-animated puppet machine and the gentle, music box-like soundtrack composed by the musical duo Dënver tell a tale of pain and loss. Set within an ecology of spinning gears and precision levers, gestated through the digital production process, Bear Story presents a double-layered example of technology recruited in the service of humanity. The machine may be everywhere perceived, but that does not diminish the heart that beats within.
4. Possessions (2012)
Animism is the belief that everything that exists, animate or not, is possessed of a soul or spiritual essence. It’s an outlook that’s reflected in various aspects of traditional Japanese culture, and lends a distinctive ambiance to many Japanese ghost stories. (Have a care about that abandoned VHS cassette—it may contain more than a copy of The Beastmaster.) In Possessions (presented as Possession in the opening credits), a wandering craftsman seeks shelter from a storm in an abandoned shrine deep in a forest. There he is assailed by assorted detritus—with umbrellas and scarves taking the lead—the worn, haunted articles mourning their abandonment by their owners. But instead of fleeing into the night, the visitor shoulders the responsibility assumed by any dedicated tinkerer and, with the help of a well-equipped toolkit, endeavors to restore the items to usefulness.
By intent or not, the title Possessions serves a dual purpose, describing both the discarded objects and the spirits that animate them. The film received a well-justified nomination for an Oscar, with director Shûhei Morita’s CG animation successfully bringing the style of Japanese ukiyo-e woodblock prints into three dimensions while filling the haunted shrine with a warm, eerie luminosity. But beyond the technical accomplishments, one suspects the nod came as much for the film’s outlook, evoking empathy within the chills it delivers and styling the intrepid craftsman as an unlikely hero, willing to take on the challenge of healing souls that had lost their purpose. In the end, Morita gives us a unique way to regard the specialness of our existence—you leave the film not with a shiver, but with an appreciation for the interconnectedness of all things on Earth.
3. Adventure Time, “I Remember You” (2012)
For a putative kids’ show, it didn’t take long for Adventure Time to reveal a darker streak. The wreckage of a lost civilization—our civilization—litters the landscape, and frequent references to “the Mushroom War” are soon understood to be not allusions to some cutesy, fantasy conflict but to an apocalyptic, nuclear conflagration. Within the series’ spreading shadows, the role of the Ice King took on a deeper meaning, gradually transforming the character from a silly yet formidable adversary into a genuinely tragic entity. In “I Remember You,” the King invades the home of Marceline the Vampire Queen, hoping the goth rocker will help him compose a song to win the heart of Princess Bubblegum. Instead, the tunes they create expose the King’s loneliness and rage, and Marceline’s grief over the relationship they once had: that of a kindly antiquarian coming to the aid of a lost vampire child in the aftermath of nuclear holocaust. A relationship, it turns out, the King no longer remembers.
Directed by Adam Muto, Larry Leichliter, and Nick Jennings, and scripted and storyboarded by Cole Sanchez and Rebecca Sugar—the latter of whom would go on to create the similarly music-intensive Steven Universe—“I Remember You” disposes with Adventure Time’s typical humorous beats (even the show’s main protagonists, Finn and Jake, make only a token appearance) to bring further depth to what had initially been a two-dimensional villain. The simple artwork and bright colors bring striking contrast to the story’s emotional complexity as Marceline struggles to reawaken memories in the King, basing her lyrics on notes the ice-wielding monarch wrote to her before his magic crown drove him insane. “I need to save you, but who’s going to save me?/Please forgive me for whatever I do,/When I don’t remember you,” she sings (in Olivia Olson’s beautiful voice), while the King, oblivious, happily accompanies her on organ and drums. In the end, it’s the Vampire Queen’s desperate attempt to remind a lost soul of his humanity, and his blithe inability to comprehend her meaning, that breaks the heart. The tears Marceline sheds turn out to be well-justified; they might well be echoed in the viewer.
2. The Tell-Tale Heart (1953)
United Productions of America begins its animated adaptation of The Tell-Tale Heart with a pair of title cards, introducing its audience to Edgar Allan Poe. Wait, you think, why would anyone need an introduction to one of the most famous of American authors? Because, friend, this was 1953, and moviegoers were still used not only to cartoon characters with murderous intent being foiled by backfiring rifles and anvils that defied gravity, but to such hijinks being introduced with punning titles that signaled that whatever was upcoming wasn’t to be taken seriously. So even if the viewer was well aware of Poe’s tale of a madman driven to kill by the sight of an old man’s dead eye, and compelled to confession by the guilt-driven sound of the victim’s heart beating, beating, beating beneath the floorboards, they were less primed to think the film was going to be an exercise in dread than yet another opportunity to laugh. As many viewers did, before those explanatory title cards were spliced in.
UPA had been established by a group of dissident animators who had grown tired of being restrained by their mainstream studios from experimenting with more innovative – and largely European-inspired – techniques. The studio had scored major hits with Mr. Magoo and Gerald McBoing-Boing, but with Tell-Tale they threw all their energy into applying an unabashed, surrealist brush to Poe’s tale. Director Ted Parmelee leaned heavily on Salvadore Dali’s stark architectures, and restricted full animation to moments when a ghostly figure crosses a room, or a checkered blanket swirls into a psychotic maelstrom. With James Mason investing his all into the (very) freely adapted, first-person narration, the film signaled a new path for animation, one that sought neither to tug at hearts nor provoke laughs, but dared to plumb darker, and subtler, depths.
1. Grave of the Fireflies (1988)
Fun fact: Grave of the Fireflies debuted on a double bill with Hayao Miyazaki’s My Neighbor Totoro. It wasn’t completely by choice; turns out the only way Miyazaki could get funding for his charming fantasy about two children and the magical forest spirit they befriend was to gang it to Studio Ghibli partner Isao Takahata’s dramatic tale of two children and their decidedly not-magical struggles to survive in a war-torn Japan. The result was the simultaneous premiere of two anime classics in 1988, and likely the Japanese equivalent of what young viewers of Watership Down experienced ten years prior.
Takahata is considered the more grounded of Studio Ghibli’s founding team, even when indulging in fantasy. In Fireflies, he doesn’t shy away from depicting the harshness of the lives of Seita and Setsuko, two children of WWII who in succession lose their mother in a firebombing, are taken in by their aunt only to be evicted when the woman feels they’re not pulling their weight, try to survive in an abandoned bomb shelter, and ultimately succumb to starvation and exposure (not a spoiler; the film begins with Seita’s passing, and the boy’s ghost occasionally is glimpsed silently watching at screen’s periphery). Takahata’s offhand portrayal of the callousness with which people deal with the orphans, and his subtle delineation of their travails as almost a part of the natural order, makes the horror of what they’re undergoing land with more impact than could be achieved with overblown dramatics. Grave of the Fireflies’ gentleness stabs at your soul – the film weeps quietly for two lives pointlessly lost, but its anguish is still well-heard, loud and clear.
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I can read your mind. No foolin’…want proof? Don’t move. You’re thinking… You’re thinking… You’re thinking that there’s a film I missed—one that demonstrates the dramatic power of cartoons at least as well, if not better, than any of those cited in the list above. Quick, write that film down in the comments section below! I knew it! I knew it! That’s exactly the film I knew you were thinking about, and it’s a good choice, I’m glad you reminded us of it. How did I know? I CAN READ YOUR MIND!
Originally published February 2020.
Dan Persons has been knocking about the genre media beat for, oh, a good handful of years, now. He’s presently house critic for the radio show Hour of the Wolf on WBAI 99.5FM in New York, and previously was editor of Cinefantastique and Animefantastique, as well as producer of news updates for The Monster Channel. He is also founder of Anime Philadelphia, a program to encourage theatrical screenings of Japanese animation. And you should taste his One Alarm Chili! Wow!