We’re in the midst of an animation renaissance of sorts, with new and electrifying creative visions bursting into the mainstream. Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse is the latest groundbreaking phenomenon to hit the zeitgeist; the sequel expands on stunning success of the previous movie, which redefined the rules of animated storytelling and captured the hearts of mainstream audiences all at once.
For folks who grew up in the ’90s and the preceding decades, Disney tended to dominate the scene when it came to animated films. That’s not to cast aspersions on the House of Mouse, but in my experience, many of those Disney kids didn’t continue loving animation into adulthood, which means they’re missing out on some truly great art and storytelling. I’ve written twice before about this very topic, so this is a loosely related third installment in my animation saga, which began by questioning seemingly negative attitudes toward the medium, then continued with a deep dive into three specific test cases.
Now, to complete the trilogy, I thought I’d simply discuss five of my favorite animated works not made by Disney. I’m also leaving Studio Ghibli out of the mix, since their work is already widely popular, though consider this sentence a blanket recommendation for pretty much any and every Ghibli movie…
If you’re already a fan of animation, you’ve probably heard of many (if not all) of these picks, and my fondness for them probably won’t surprise you. This list is more for the folks who find themselves in the same camp as my original survey-takers: not necessarily against watching animated content, but unsure what to watch and looking for recommendations.
The Secret of Kells
My first viewing of The Secret of Kells was the entire reason I started exploring the topic of animation in this trilogy of articles. My wife and I watched it one night and sat completely slack-jawed after the credits rolled.
From the Irish animation studio Cartoon Saloon and directed by Tomm Moore and Nora Twomey, The Secret of Kells loosely chronicles the creation of the titular tome, an illuminated manuscript which can still be seen today (either online or by visiting Trinity College Library in Dublin). Brendan is our main character, a plucky boy living in an abbey under the watchful eye of his uncle Cellach (brilliantly voiced by Brendan Gleeson). While the other monks focus on producing gorgeous art, Abbot Cellach grimly leads the construction of a giant wall around the abbey to protect it from marauding Vikings.
The Secret of Kells is an artistic marvel. I listen to the soundtrack on repeat. I’m constantly reminded of some of the incredible transition scenes and action sequences, beautifully animated in a way that feels like a direct subversion of your typical Disney flick.
The movie was recommended to me by a friend, who also swears by Cartoon Saloon’s Song of the Sea. I haven’t seen it yet, but I trust his rec and want to share it here in case you fall in love with The Secret of Kells and immediately want more.
I owe this pick to a few commenters on my previous animation article who lamented my exclusion of Makoto Shinkai’s work. I’m sorry, commenters; I hope this rectifies my transgression!
For animation aficionados, Your Name is a well-known benchmark. Widely considered an ideal gateway into anime movies, Your Name is a body-switching story in which high school students Taki and Mitsuha swap places and must try to adjust to the shocking development.
Your Name, though, doesn’t confine itself to the familiar Freaky Friday trope. Shinkai instead uses the concept to tell a profound and heartwarming story replete with a looming apocalypse and a budding romance. By embracing the best of narrative tropes and shirking the clichés, Your Name makes for a wholly unique viewing experience. Plus, its animation is absolutely stunning.
The Witcher: Nightmare of the Wolf
Fans of all things The Witcher shouldn’t sleep on Nightmare of the Wolf (also available on Netflix). The movie follows Geralt’s mentor Vesemir. Interspersed with flashbacks to his childhood and the process of becoming a witcher, Vesemir’s story lives up to the title. This one’s not for the faint of heart. It offers some particularly gory scenes and visceral jump scares. The anime style lends itself perfectly to the brutality of The Witcher’s world.
In the “current day” storyline (1165, according to the in-universe calendar), Vesemir and a comrade are arrested for killing a few knights during a bar brawl. A member of the royal court convinces the king to send Vesemir and Luka to hunt down Kitsu, a corrupted elf who some believe is controlling monsters in the area. That’s as far as I’ll go, here, to avoid spoilers, but if you like action, horror, and classic “Who’s the real monster?” stories, Nightmare of the Wolf is perfect for you.
You may remember Entergalactic if you read my previous animation article, and I’m happy to recommend it again here. The film is the brainchild of Kid Cudi and the animation style clearly shares some influences with Into the Spider-verse.
Kid Cudi voices protagonist Jabari, who works in the comics industry in Manhattan. Entergalactic follows Jabari as he falls for his new neighbor and pursues success in the New York art scene. I particularly enjoy Entergalactic for its depiction of the creative process and flow state—there are regular interludes in which the narrative takes on a fantastical bent, plunging viewers into the wacky world of Jabari’s creative vision.
I also appreciated Entergalactic’s understated story. It’s a simple slice-of-life tale about modern relationships and self-discovery. The animation enhances the whole experience, hyper-stylizing Jabari’s life and elevating the story as it unfolds. Entergalactic bursts from the screen and hits you right in the heart.
Kubo and the Two Strings
Charlize Theron. Matthew McConaughey. Ralph Fiennes. Kubo and the Two Strings has a killer voice cast on top of its impeccable stop-motion style and oodles of heart.
Kubo’s mother regularly suffers memory loss, and he takes care of her as best he can, relishing the moments when she’s lucid. When the Moon King—also Kubo’s grandfather—catches wind of his location, our brave protagonist has to venture into the world in search of three magical items that’ll help him vanquish the Moon King.
Kubo and the Two Strings is my go-to recommendation for fantasy fans looking for a fun and compelling animated movie. It features a gorgeous and intricate magic system and multiple interlaced character stories that feel right at home in a well-constructed fantasy universe. Kubo also isn’t afraid to make its ending bittersweet. This isn’t a simple “happily ever after” story, but you’ll appreciate its powerful lessons about memory and compassion all the same.
Thanks as always for reading! And please feel free to recommend some of your own favorite animated movies 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.