Finding the Perfect Animated Movies for People Who Avoid Cartoons

Earlier this year, curious about the number of people in my life with little or no interest in animated movies and TV shows, I decided to dig a bit deeper. I surveyed my friends and collected the results of this extremely scientific experiment into an extensive article with filled with quotes about the participants’ different experiences as well as plenty of recommendations.

I was hoping to find a way to get people to look at animated stories with fresh eyes and unravel their preconceptions regarding a format that’s often written off as being only “for kids” or simply difficult to connect with. After the initial survey (on which many of you commented and shared your own thoughts, for which I am immensely grateful!), it was time to take the next step and see if I could do exactly what I’d hoped from the beginning: change some minds.

I called three of the original survey-takers, and all three agreed to take my “research” one step further. They all had different reasons for balking at animation, so I gave them each two animated movies to watch. Everyone had to watch Kubo and the Two Strings, then each person got a recommendation tailored specifically to their taste. I chose Kubo because I knew my three subjects hadn’t seen it and because it balances heartwarming whimsy with a dramatic exploration of its themes. I wanted the interviewees to experience something new and fresh that would redefine what they think of animation. We chatted over video calls and explored their reactions to each film. What follows is a look at the highlights: what did they like? What didn’t they like? Did either movie sway them? Let’s take a look.

Here’s a glance at the movies I had them watch, in case you want to see them (or look up summaries) first:

  • Kubo and the Two Strings
  • Sing
  • Marcel the Shell With Shoes On
  • Entergalactic

Before we start, one note: The movies I had these folks watch are not intended to be representative of animation as a whole, and I understand there are many, many different types and styles of animated content. My goal here was simply to give each person recommendations that might bring them into the animation-fan fold. Based on their thoughts, I’d love to hear further recommendations in the comments!


Rich, the Father-In-Law

When I pitched this follow-up piece, I knew I had to get Rich involved. In the original animation survey, he’d highlighted the Marvel movies and their animated elements. He also praised old-timey stop-motion flicks like 1933’s King Kong.

I knew Rich would be a tough nut to crack, and sure enough, his boisterous arrival at Easter dinner brought a thundering proclamation from across the room:

“WORST TWO HOURS OF MY LIFE,” he yelled. There was a twinkle in his eye, and obvious excitement that we’d have something to debate.

Rich despised Studio Laika’s Kubo and the Two Strings, and he made it known from the get-go. The second movie I’d proposed was Illumination’s Sing, a selection I gave to him because he told me he liked “anything with talking animals.”

“I give Kubo a 2 out of 10,” he said. “You’ve got to give kudos for the effort of everyone involved—producers, animators, directors, actors, writers…it’s not an easy thing to do.”

He appreciated the vision, and how all the creative people involved could come together to bring it to life. But where did those two points come from after the “worst two hours” of his life?

“Certainly, everyone had to make the effort to write and adapt and animate the movie,” he said. “So that’s one point. Then you have Charlize Theron portraying a talking monkey, that’s the other point.” Talking animals for the win!

As we talked, though, it became clear that Rich’s gripes with Kubo were, (1) entirely fair, and (2) had relatively little to do with the animation itself.

“The moral here wasn’t strong,” Rich said. “It’s supposed to be about perseverance and believing in yourself. But there’s so much mystic and magical intervention that isn’t realistic.”

He compared this to Sing, in which the ensemble cast overcomes adversity with their own talents and not a magical sword and suit of armor: “To me, the magic was a big cheat.”

I’ll spare you the details (or possibly save them for a later article), but Rich and I indulged ourselves in a lengthy argument about the efficacy of magic in stories.

“So, the only reason Kubo was exceptional was because he had this magic instrument and these magical artifacts? What the hell is that teaching anybody?”

I can’t fault him for that interpretation. To me, Kubo is about using the tools available to you to succeed even when others think you can’t. To Rich, the magic was a get-out-of-jail-free card. That certainly speaks more to his feelings toward fantasy than animation, though, so let’s get back on track.

The tone and the animation style were mismatched for him. “It’s hard to animate facial expressions in stop-motion. They didn’t give me a lot of ability to empathize with them.”

“I knew within the first two minutes it was going to be awful,” Rich said. So Kubo was a miss. Sing, on the other hand…

“10 out of 10,” Rich announced.

He immediately drew comparisons between Sing and Kubo. Both movies deal with finding strength in the face of a challenge and overcoming your situation through dedication and perseverance.

“Even though the characters weren’t human, Sing told you a story without having to be in-your-face-serious. But it got you to the same place. They use their voices, their personalities to succeed.” He cited a few “laugh-out-loud” moments. He loved the CGI animation style and the caricatures of anthropomorphic animals.

Animation has a unique advantage, too, Rich noted: “In a live-action movie, you can always find a flaw. You can’t always get the perfect scene. In animation—accounting for budget and time and everything, of course—you can technically go back and redo anything that doesn’t feel right.”

The result, he says, is a polished and deliberate product. And it certainly helped that Seth MacFarlane played a crooning mouse. “We both love Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack,” Rich said to me, “so that was just really fun to watch.”

The big question: did I succeed in changing his mind about animation?

Ever-so-slightly, I’ll give myself a “yes.” At the end of our call, Rich asked “Is there a sequel to Sing?” I told him there was. He beamed and said, “I’m going to watch it right now.”

I don’t think Rich will seek out animation on his own, but I do think he is more open to certain animated stories. I’ll count it as a win.


Amanda, the Fellow Fantasy Fan

Our second guinea pig in this informal experiment was Amanda. She’s a fellow fantasy reader, a mother (currently expecting her second child!), and my cousin-in-law (which means she’s Rich’s niece). It’s a family affair!

Amanda’s initial misgivings with animation were simple lack of exposure and an overarching uncertainty. She wasn’t sure where to start. There’s so much animation in the world, and it’s hard to sort out stuff that resonates with you from the rest. She also has a young one, so much of her animation exposure has been Paw PatrolBluey, and the like.

This led to her to making connections and experiencing reactions to some of the content in ways that didn’t immediately occur to me, as a non-parent. Take her initial response to Kubo, for example: “First of all, it’s scary! I wouldn’t have my child watch this until he’s much older!”

Amanda also had strong feelings of empathy, especially when it came to Kubo’s relationship with his mother, who suffers from memory loss. We discussed the emotional core of the movie at length. Amanda appreciated Kubo’s willingness as a film to sit with sadness and explore loss.

The animation is a bit of a double-edged sword for Amanda. “This isn’t supposed to be the real world,” she said, “But there’s a point where Kubo is underwater for a really long time, and I just kept thinking ‘he would’ve drowned.’”

Even as she thought it, Amanda reminded herself of the format. “This is animation, I told myself. He literally just made a sailboat out of leaves. In moments like that, it works; I just have to look past the scenes that don’t click, like when he’s underwater.”

“Overall, I’d give Kubo a 6 or so. It was fine.”

Next, I had Amanda watch Marcel the Shell With Shoes On from A24. The stop-motion shell of viral video fame lives in a real-world house, so it has animated elements but isn’t a fully animated film in itself.

Amanda gave the movie an 8 out of 10. “I loved it. I loved the little miniature world. I fell in love with the characters.”

At this point, Amanda seemed to have a small epiphany. Her eyes widened and I egged her on. “Maybe it’s easier in animation. You can connect with characters in a new way. Marcel explored death and grief, and I’d never expect that. We saw Marcel’s perspective and I never thought twice about whether it was ‘real.’”

Amanda also praised Marcel for doing something she hadn’t seen before, especially as a millennial who grew up on Disney. “Marcel wasn’t perfect, and that’s kind of the point. His shoes are glued on, and he has this wonky googly eye. It’s not what comes to mind when I think of animation, which is kind of cool. Unexpected.”

Once again, the big question: did I change Amanda’s mind? I’ll let her answer.

“My relationship with animation has changed, for sure,” she said. “I honestly wish there was a curated list of recommendations I could get based on my tastes and personality.”

I told her she’s got a curator right here!


Jacob, the Lifelong Friend

Finally, we come to Jacob. He’s a film producer, so he brings a unique artistic perspective. We’ve known each other since middle school, and he has long been staunchly opposed to most animated content.

“I watched a lot of cartoons as a kid. Looney Tunes, Jimmy Neutron, SpongeBob, Fairly OddParents. Then I slowly started moving to live-action and never went back to animation.”

Jacob also grew up in a Christian family, and he said that his religious upbringing impacted his attitude toward animation. “I was never allowed to dive into the Adult Swim world like other millennials did. I didn’t watch Family Guy or South Park, either. So adult animation never felt like a natural choice for me.”

He gave Kubo “a 6 or 7, wonderful film. On an animation-style level, I loved it. The creative execution was amazing, even from the opening sequence in the ocean. It was such a beautiful medium with high artistic execution.”

“I was reminded that even as a filmmaker I have a limited view of the methods that can be used to tell captivating stories. I tend to associate animation with more childlike narratives, yet they obviously aren’t.”

We then shifted to Entergalactic, the animated brainchild of creators Kid Cudi and Kenya Barris, director Fletcher Moules, and writers Ian Edelman and Maurice Williams. It’s a slice-of-life love story, animated in a similar style to Into the Spider-Verse.

“After doing zero research, I threw this on and I was instantly captivated,” Jacob said. “It felt like it understood my life, but instead of L.A., it’s a hyper-pop New York.”

Jacob appreciated how Entergalactic visually represented certain emotions and experiences. “When you enter deep flow, the thing you’re seeing fades and you’re in this state of imagination. You exist in the world you’re creating. This film used animation to paint those moments of love, fear, anxiety, and creativity, and it could only work so well in this format.”

Animation made a familiar story feel fresh to Jacob. “It’s a tale of modern dating, falling in love. I’ve seen it before, in a sense, but not through this perspective and in this medium. I haven’t seen a street-art-inspired animated New York telling of this narrative.”

When he finished raving about the emotional connectivity of Entergalactic, I asked Jacob if I could read him something. He obliged.

From his initial responses to my animation survey, I read: “I just have a hard time getting invested emotionally in animated characters. It’s the same reason I struggle to play long-form open-world video games. I find myself not caring and thinking it is stupid at some point. I know this is a shallow perspective. But that is my honest answer.”

He cackled. “I hate that you have that ready to go.”

Once more, I asked the big question, this time directly to Jacob: “Have I changed your mind?”

Again he laughed. “Definitely. It’s important to have people in your life who engage with different forms of art and challenge you to do the same.”


That’s A Wrap!

What a blast this article has been to write—I first wish to thank Rich, Amanda, and Jacob for being just fine subjects. They were vulnerable and honest in their chats with me, and that’s all I could ask for!

Animation, for me, remains a beautiful and oft-underappreciated art form. In my experience with these three relative skeptics, I learned a crucial lesson: you can change someone’s mind. As long as they’re open to trying something new and have someone around who can recommend a great animated movie or series, there’s a good chance they’ll find a new appreciation for what animation can accomplish, regardless of initial expectations.

If you’re an animation fan who wishes your friends would listen to your recs, I encourage you to keep trying…or perhaps write a 4000-word essay on just so they’ll watch a few movies. Either plan works, honestly!

Thanks for reading, and I hope you’ll tell us about your own favorite experiences with sharing favorite animated series and films, or chime in with your recommendations in the comments below…

Cole Rush writes words. A lot of them. For the most part, you can find those words at The Quill To Live or on Twitter @ColeRush1. He voraciously reads epic fantasy and science-fiction, seeking out stories of gargantuan proportions and devouring them with a bookwormish fervor. His favorite books are: The Divine Cities Series by Robert Jackson Bennett, The Long Way To A Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers, and The House in the Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune.


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